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Debugging the Digital-TV Transition

Today's column on the digital-TV transition started out on an afternoon in February, when I was helping out a colleague by looking up old DTV stories in our index.

I've written a fair amount of them -- going back to January of 1998 -- but I knew the story went back still further. For instance, I soon found a piece that ran on May 25, 1993:

RIVALS TO COOPERATE ON HDTV PLAN

ALLIANCE MAY HASTEN NEW ERA OF CLEAR TELEVISION IMAGES, SOUND

By John Burgess Washington Post Staff Writer

Three major electronics groups, ending a rivalry that threatened to delay introduction of high-definition television, said yesterday they had joined hands to design a single version for the United States.... It would be the world's first digital television, using the underlying technology of computers. With it, U.S. electronics firms hope to take the lead in an emerging global industry that is now dominated by Japan.

By 1993, however, the effort to upgrade television had been going on for more than half a decade. The oldest Post story I could find ran on Oct. 11, 1987:

CHANCES ARE HIGH TV BREAKTHROUGH IS IN THE AIR

U.S. INDUSTRY LOOKS FOR ITS PLACE IN THE PICTURE EVEN THOUGH JAPANESE HAVE HEAD START

By John Burgess Washington Post Staff Writer

The world moved a tiny bit closer to a new era of home TV Thursday.

From a studio in Ottawa, signals from a revolutionary system known as high definition television were bounced by satellite to a darkened hearing room in the Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, conveying in disarmingly sharp, wide-screen images and in digital sound the greetings of Canadian officials and clips from a miniseries being produced there in the new medium.

Reading those two pieces led me to spend a day or two looking up my own previous coverage to see if I'd had any luck at predicting some of the issues the DTV transition has had. Sometimes I was not: As recently as 2003, I wondered why the industry didn't build more "enhanced definition" TVs, little knowing that high-def resolution would become so cheap as to become the default form of DTV.

In other cases, serious problems I'd worried about were solved before they could cause too much damage. The "broadcast flag" copy-restriction scheme mandated by the Federal Communications Commission in late 2003 got knocked out by a court ruling in May 2005 after the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge and other groups challenged the FCC's authority to issue that regulation. (Then again, what if the engineers tasked with implementing broadcast-flag obedience in digital TVs could have instead spent that time improving DTV reception?)

But some of today's issues were apparent years ago, most notably, the problem of TVs and video-recording devices not including digital tuners.

Finally, I spent a week or two exchanging e-mails with various industry types, some of whom I've been talking to since those first DTV pieces -- LG's John Taylor, Panasonic's Peter Fannon, former RCA executive Dave Arland, analysts Gary Arlen and Jeffrey Breen, MyerEmco president Gary Yacoubian -- and asking them how the DTV transition could have been better managed.

I'd like to think that the results you see in today's paper/Web site are the last time I'll have to dig through DTV policy like this. But even after 11 years of writing these stories, I suppose there may yet be time for yet another piece or two on the subject.

Now I'd like to hear from all of you: Assuming that a) we'd still have a digital transition, b) it would still feature a fixed deadline to shut off analog broadcasts, and c) you'd have the usual level of regulatory power over broadcasters, retailers and manufacturers, how would you have managed the DTV transition? Let me know in the comments -- then, at 2, stop by my Web chat and we can continue the conversation in real time.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 5, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  TV , The business we have chosen  
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Comments

Rob, you nailed one of the major implementation issues: the mismatch between the time when digital tuners were put into TVs and VCRs and how long people hang onto this equipment. I think the Consumer Electronics Association says people replace their TVs every 11 years, although most homes have multiple TVs ranging from a couple years old to 15+ years old.

Well, it didn't make sense to delay DTV for another decade so that everyone would have replaced all of their TVs, so the coupon program would bridge the gap. The converter boxes are inconvenient, especially for VCR recording, but they just need to hold us over for a while. Inadequately funding of the coupon program and a bad recession are making the conversion worse.

Posted by: joemcg | March 5, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

I can't help but think that, for roughtly the same net cost of the coupon program (with administration, processing, etc.), the gov't could've simply GIVEN AWAY the boxes. You just hafta know that those converters can't cost more than a coupla bucks to manufacture & package.

And if the gov't had teamed up with cable companies to handle distribution of the free converter boxes, that would've given the cable companies an excellent "in" to convert over-the-air TV watchers into basic cable subscribers for a very minimal monthly fee. Once you're a cable subscriber, then they can work on up-selling you into more feature-laden and higher-priced tiers. Even if the boxes cost more than the coupon program, cable companies might well have paid the difference just to gain the sales opportunity!

Posted by: rodaniel | March 5, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

For us Ludites with our 10 year old Sony trintrons and wega's, the conversion to dtv is like driving up to the freeway on-ramp one morning and finding it's now a toll road. Whether you're in DC Metro, LA or the Bay Area it's a problem. For example, I bought three converter boxes with the idea of keeping the best one. OOPSYDAISY, all those perfectly viewable analog stations are gone and you are left with a pixilated view that only a horse fly could love. Horse Feathers. If Broadcasters had been held accountable to delivering a VIEWABLE signal with viewing strength equivalent to analog I doubt DTV would have gotten very far with FCC, despite the big big bucks being made by reselling the public's bandwith. Of course, how many FCC types don't have a dish or cable? Kids have the best solution, cancel their cable, ignore the TV and interact with what they fancy on their wifi Macs. Bye Bye.

Posted by: thealaskan | March 5, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

@rodaniel
That is a great point. I've thought for the beginning that the coupon program was an unneeded handout for the electronics industry. The price of something is what the market will bear and if you subsidize it, the market will bear more. By handing out $40 coupons, the government drove up the price of the boxes to the $40s. This is just dumb and demonstrates how little grasp of economics Congress has.

With a little creativity, distribution could have gone much more smoothly. Maybe they could have combined it with the 2010 census - if your household fills out its census form, you get a free converter box. After that, let the market provide the boxes - I guarantee they'd cost much less than $50.

Perhaps charities could get involved too. I think a lot of people would consider donating money to buy boxes for the poor. I could even see Hollywood raising a ton of money just to ensure that as many people as possible continue to watch TV.

The bottom line is that what Congress did was completely stupid so it is no wonder that things have gone so badly.

Posted by: slar | March 6, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

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