The end of analog TV
Will America's favorite technology really go dark next year?
By Michael Rogers
Special to MSNBC
Depending on the outcome of discussions in Congress, television as we
know it may end at exactly midnight Dec. 31, 2006.
That's the date Congress targeted, a decade ago, for the end of analog
television broadcasting and a full cutover to a digital format. If
enforced, that means that overnight, somewhere around 70 million
television sets now connected to rabbit ears or roof-top antennas will
suddenly and forever go blank, unless their owners purchase a special
converter box. Back when the legislation was written, New Year's Eve
2006 probably looked as safely distant as the dark side of the
moon. But now that date is right around the corner and Congress and
the FCC are struggling mightily to figure out what to do.
Congress, however, left itself a loophole in the 1996 legislation, and
could actually let the cut-off date slide by. But powerful lobbyists
now are pressing legislators to set a "date certain" for the analog
lights-out. The debate over when to throw the switch is a strange brew
of big money, high technology, homeland security and a single,
unanswerable question: just how angry are the couch potatoes going to
be? It's also a textbook example of why the future almost never
happens as fast as technologists promise.
It all started back in the Eighties, when the Japanese shocked
American consumer electronics companies with trade-show displays of
high definition television sets that delivered razor-sharp images and
stunning audio. Everyone from Congress to the Wall Street Journal
raised outcries: America's favorite technology was being taken over by
the then-fearsome Japan Inc. As a result, a group of American
companies formed the "Grand Alliance" that leapfrogged the Japanese
technology by inventing digital HDTV. Thus, early on, HDTV invoked not
just pretty pictures, but national pride and economic
development. (Ironically, Zenith, the most all-American commercial
participant in the Grand Alliance, is now South Korean-owned.)
One drawback to the U.S. version of HDTV was that to make it work, all
broadcast television (not just high-definition) would have to convert
to digital, meaning that every American television set manufactured
since 1946 would be rendered obsolete. To ease the transition,
Congress generously gave all television broadcasters additional
channel space so that they could keep broadcasting their analog
signals while they installed and launched their digital channels. The
deal was that they would give up their old channels when the
transition was done. That part worked: Over 1400 broadcasters now
transmit in digital as well as analog, reaching 99 percent of the
U.S. television market.
During the same period consumers were supposed to buy digital
television receivers. That part didn't work.