The Joy of Digital TV

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

If you watch television on an analog TV set, you’ll recognize a hint of sarcasm in the title of this article. Perhaps you are one of the lucky (or foresightful — you decide) people who sent for the government-issue card that entitled you to $40 off the price of an analog-digital converter box. Perhaps you actually took the card to the store before its expiration date.  Perhaps you took home your new converter and actually installed it.  If so, your TV viewing may have continued without a hitch when many local TV stations shut down their analog transmissions on Feb. 17 and went to purely digital broadcasting.

My guess, based on what I’m hearing, is that that scenario is not bloody likely.

You may be among the 2.4 million Americans who got caught in the January fiasco, in which the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA — the same folks who got most of the broadband money in the economic stimulus bill) ran out of money to help pay for the converter box. For you, I briing glad tidings: The Stim includes the needed funding and your cards (the government actually sends two to each requester) will reach you in two to three weeks. Meanwhile, you may find yourself staring at a blank screen.

Last week, President Obama signed a bill delaying conversion from analog to digital TV until June 12. That’s the good news.  The bad news is that, while the major networks announced they will comply with the new deadline and continue to send analog pictures,  the networks own only about 100 of America’s 1,800 or so television stations and more than 400 of them have already switched off the analog feed, or will do so shortly, according to Reuters.

The worse news is that if your home is sufficiently rural you may never get to see digital TV at all. Analog broadcasters used to publish maps showing where their signal went, as a way to justify their advertising rates. The maps would show two areas: the one nearest the station’s transmitter was labeled the “A Contour.” Within that area, pictures and sound were clear. In the outer ring of the station’s reach, its “B Contour,” pictures ranged from grainy to downright snowy, and the sound deteriorated to match.

With digital TV, it’s all or nothing. You either get it, or you don’t. Generally, a digital signal travels about 75 miles and then, in the language of the TV industry, “falls off the cliff.” So if you’re really rural, more than 75 miles from a TV transmitter, you’re destined (or doomed, as the case may be) to TV by satellite. Your choices then are DirecTV, Dish TV, or a good book.

I can’t recommend between the two satellite services; we subscribe to one here because there’s never been an off-air TV signal of any quality that we could get with a rooftop antenna. And if anyone could have brought TV into our house, that would have been my husband, whose business used to be designing and installing antenna systems. There were (are) just too many hills blocking the path to either Boston or Springfield, where the TV stations are. We went without TV for several years, until satellite TV became available here.

The worst news is that, as Tm Regan writes in the Christian Science Monitor,

A digital signal is affected by practically everything – where your TV set is located in your house, the walls in your house, the number of trees in your yard, how close it is to other electronic devices, birds migrating south in the fall. No kidding. A Washington Post story described how a woman who lived on the 20th floor of an apartment building would lose her signal for a few moments every time a plane landed or took off from Reagan National airport.

I don’t know who thought up this fiasco or what they were thinking, but I’m sure the Obama administration is not to blame (although I don’t doubt it will be blamed by some.)  I’m sure digital TV is gorgeous and the sound is outstanding. I’m also sure the planners didn’t have rural people in mind, or people who live behind  walls with foil-backed insulation in them, or people who are surrounded by trees, or ….

If you are left without TV these days, I’m sorry.  If you want me to recommend a good book, just drop me a line.

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2 Responses to “The Joy of Digital TV”

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