DTV switch planned for tonight, digital sub-channels predicted to take off in popularity
- From: Taylor <lukebenward@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 11 Jun 2009 21:48:31 -0700 (PDT)
Digital TV set for switch Friday night
Posted 1h 32m ago
By Leslie Cauley and David Lieberman, USA TODAY, METROMEDIASQUARE.COM
The USA has spent the better part of a decade preparing for the big
switch to digital TV, which concludes Friday night. Now what?
Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps says
consumers won't have to wait long to see the magic of digital
technology, which holds promise for TV, wireless and emergency
The upshot: "We're going from the Dinosaur Age to the Digital Age,"
the FCC chief says.
The most immediate impact will be in the area of free TV. For over-the-
air TV viewers, there will be "lots more channels and better
pictures," Copps says. Sound quality also improves.
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What this means: If you're among the 20 million homes that receive TV
signals exclusively over the air, you could see a dramatic bump in the
number of channels you get. Some will likely be broadcast in high-
definition, or HD, which offers images so crisp, they look 3-D.
(Analog TVs won't morph into HD units, they'll just get better
The increase is due to the efficiency of digital technology, which can
pack a lot of programming into the space formerly occupied by a single
How much more? If you had 10 analog channels, you could wind up with
as many as 60 digital channels over time, all free. These "multicast"
offerings show up as "subchannels" — 7.1, 7.2 and so on.
As in the analog world, TV stations can use their digital bits any way
they want. That opens myriad opportunities, says former AOL executive
"When you look at the number of TV stations out there, you have almost
unlimited possibilities of ideas to try," says Pittman, who now runs
The Pilot Group, which has 21 TV stations in 15 markets.
"Somebody's going to do something that makes you say, 'Wow, I didn't
even think of that,' " Pittman says. "To me, the big idea is the one
that's going to come out of nowhere."
Near term, however, more traditional fare will probably dominate, he
"If you ask what's the most important thing about a local TV station,
it's local news, information and weather," he says. "You'll find some
doubling up on that (sort of fare), so people have more opportunities
to watch at their convenience."
An opening for CW, newer networks
Angling to take advantage of extra capacity, some TV stations are
Consider The CW, which caters to younger viewers. It's been the odd
man out in many small communities for years, where the handful of
stations are mostly aligned with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
Thanks to the DTV transition, however, stations across the country are
adding CW as a digital channel. CW digital markets include Cincinnati,
Grand Rapids, Mich., and Honolulu.
TV stations also are looking at newer networks such as RTV-Retro
Television Network and MGM's This TV, which offer relatively cheap
programming, as well as an advertising opportunity. Both cater to fans
of old movies and reruns of older prime-time shows such as Adam-12 and
Other network newcomers being eyed: Universal Sports, from NBC
Universal, which features badminton, cycling, fencing, skiing,
volleyball and other niche-oriented games; and LATV, which showcases
Latin music videos and other shows aimed at Spanish-speaking and
Mobile, which is becoming a lifestyle around the world, is a growing
area of interest.
Keen to reach as many eyeballs as possible, broadcasters are eager to
transmit their TV shows and other digital services to mobile devices
of every sort, including netbooks, cellphones and TV sets embedded in
That isn't possible right now. Digital TV pictures tend to break up
when the set moves.
But technology is evolving, making that less of a problem. By the end
of this year, about 70 stations in 28 markets plan to adopt a new
broadcast standard that is friendly to mobile. That will let them beam
digital TV signals directly to devices, which will hit retail shelves
later this year.
"What's cool about this is that there will be free offerings,
including alerts for weather and breaking news," says Anne Schelle,
executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, an industry
Eventually, she says, the technology "will be inexpensive enough to be
in just about any device with a screen."
Smarter, faster phones?
Big wireless carriers, meantime, have their own plans for DTV.
AT&T and Verizon were among the companies that paid $20 billion for
the spectrum being vacated by broadcasters. The spectrum can penetrate
walls, heavy foliage and other objects, making it ideal for mobile
Once it's put to work for wireless carriers, the performance of smart
devices such as the Apple iPhone could vastly improve, says Charles
Golvin, a senior wireless analyst at Forrester Research. "When it come
to higher speeds and richer services, spectrum really is the lifeblood
AT&T and Verizon plan to use their respective hunks of spectrum for
fourth-generation wireless. Once those transitions are complete, the
mobile Web experience for their customers "will become much more like
the land-line Internet," says Roger Entner, head of telecom research
Speed will be the most noticeable difference. Right now, mobile Web
users are lucky to get 1 megabit per second. Once AT&T and Verizon
switch to 4G, he says, speeds in the "high single digits" won't be
The bad news: "That will be it for awhile, because at that point,
you're reaching the physical limits" of the spectrum and the networks
One big exception is Sprint, which is deploying WiMax wireless
technology using spectrum it has owned for years. Surfing speed: up to
12 megabits. But construction of its network has been slow, so build-
out could take a few years. Sprint currently offers WiMax in
Baltimore; Atlanta, Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas launch this summer.
John Donovan, chief technology officer of AT&T, says consumers are the
biggest winners of this wireless footrace.
Wireless "consumers are going to have a lot more choice and a lot
better choice" in the future, he says. Ditto for video customers, he
adds. AT&T and Verizon both offer video products that compete head-on
with cable TV.
Carriers will also benefit. They can roll out far more robust
services, ensuring that the wireless data gravy train — worth billions
to them — continues its white-hot pace, Entner says. Prices probably
won't come down, however, at least not until growth stalls: "They'll
squeeze (consumers) as long as they can."
Another side benefit of DTV: improved emergency communications.
Bolstered by chunks of the Grade-A airwaves being abandoned by
broadcasters, Copps says communications among police, fire and other
emergency personnel will be far more reliable. That could mean the
difference between life and death during local and national disasters.
Flipping the switch tonight
All this is predicated on the assumption that the DTV transition goes
smoothly. That's not a given.
As of Wednesday, about 2.8 million over-the-air-only homes were still
not ready for the switch, says the FCC, citing Nielsen estimates.
Millions of "secondary" TVs in back bedrooms and garages also weren't
prepared, though some of those may never be transitioned, the FCC
So far, more than 780 stations, most in smaller markets, have made the
switch. Major hitches have been rare, but there have been nagging
problems with antennas and digital converter boxes.
Antennas typically have to be adjusted, or moved to a new location,
post-switch. In some cases, new antennas may be needed. Converter
boxes, which turn digital signals into analog, must be rescanned.
The final DTV push ends Friday night. Throughout the day, full-power
stations in major markets — including New York, Chicago and Los
Angeles — will shut down their analog signals. By midnight, they'll be
transmitting exclusively in digital. With that, the DTV era in the USA
The government is still offering $40 coupons — two per household while
supplies last — for the purchase of converter boxes, which cost about
$60. Analog TVs won't work post-switch without a box attached. Coupons
take a week or so to arrive.
If you don't have coupons and want to get them, however, there's still
time, says Joel Kelsey, public policy analyst at Consumers Union.
"Don't panic if you wake up on (June) 13th and don't have a TV
signal," he says.
Consumers have until July 31 to apply for coupons, he notes. (If you
don't want to wait, you can also buy a box without a coupon.) So far,
59 million coupons have been distributed.
Copps, the FCC chief, says he realizes that all this has probably been
a hassle for some consumers. But he also thinks DTV is well worth it.
BEHIND IN DIGITAL TV SWITCH
The transition to digital TV likely will create the most turmoil in
the West and South, where cable penetration is lower. Cities with
biggest percentage of homes not ready:
Albuquerque-Santa Fe 52,235 7.6%
Dallas-Fort Worth 145,414 5.8%
Sacramento-Stockton 64,238 4.6%
Seattle-Tacoma 82,809 4.6%
Austin 29,978 4.5%
Los Angeles 252,180 4.5%
Phoenix- Prescott 77,207 4.2%
Tulsa 21,923 4.1%
Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C. 32,949 3.8%
Houston 78,772 3.7%
Portland, Ore. 43,361 3.7%
Cleveland-Akron-Canton 55,965 3.7%
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