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When Will Analog TVs Go Dark?

The first commentary I ever wrote for this website was on what I called ?the DTV heist.? That was my characterization of the broadcast television industry holding onto its analog spectrum while occupying a fat new slice of the digital spectrum. Well, the end may finally be in sight for analog broadcasting. Maybe.

Because the planned analog-spectrum auction would bring in big bucks, the analog cutoff is moving through Congress as part of the budget package. The Senate recently voted 52-47 to approve legislation that would set a deadline of April 7, 2009 for the final transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting. One comic sidelight is that the senators were so worried about basketball fans missing the March Madness that they moved the analog cutoff from the year-end dates usually bandied about to just after the end of the college hoops tournament.

Of course, just because the Senate approves a bill, that doesn?t necessarily mean it?ll clear both houses and be signed by the president. The House Energy Commerce Committee has approved, by 33-17, an alternate bill that would set a deadline of December 31, 2008.

You can bet that both houses of Congress will hotly debate the analog cutoff when it comes up for a floor vote. If this isn?t a red-flag issue, nothing is. Imagine the pandemonium that will break out when Congress tells the American public that the vast majority of their TVs are about to become obsolete.

Interest groups will get in on the action. First of all, there are the broadcasters themselves. Once in awhile they get behind a specific date for giving up their analog spectrum but later they always conveniently forget about it. They originally promised to give it up on December 31st, 2006. That date was confirmed by loophole-ridden legislation in 1996 and has been ignored ever since.

These guys don?t want to vacate their analog spectrum in 2008 or 2009 or ever. They dread the prospect of losing even a small percentage of their viewers in the shuffle. And whether poor folks will ante up for new sets is only one of their worries.

Another one is that analog and digital broadcasting have different dispersion patterns. Analog degrades as the signal weakens, while digital usually looks great right up to the point where it fails altogether. In fairness, it?s hard to blame the broadcasters for fretting about that, though I enjoy getting my stiletto into them anyway as payback for the garbage they shovel over the public airwaves.

Then there are the consumer and public interest groups. Normally I regard these people as my natural allies but I don?t think they?re up to speed on digital broadcasting. One egregious example is Commercial Alert, which in late 2004 fired off a letter to Congress castigating the Federal Communications Commission for promoting the DTV transition. Expect these people and their blood brothers to run around the room in circles screaming ?your TV is going dark! Your TV is going dark! Your TV is going dark!?

What will happen to analog TVs is a legitimate issue. It cries out for solutions, not sensationalism. What has to happen is that set-top boxes must be provided to convert the new digital signals to the old analog format so that no one is forced to buy a new TV unless they want a better picture. The Senate committee-approved bill provides $3 billion to assist low-income viewers. The House bill allows only $990 million. Since the sale of the analog spectrum will bring in billions of dollars, Congress will have some money to play with, so while set-top box subsidies are not a done deal at this stage, they are a distinct possibility.

How much the spectrum auction will bring in is uncertain. Estimates have run as high as $70 billion though more recent numbers run as low as $10 billion. I find it interesting that the amount has suddenly shrunk now that the auctions are a few scant years away from happening. I?m sure it has nothing to do with sweetheart deals between our incorruptible government and the corporations eyeing the spectrum.

Another issue is spectrum for emergency responders?your local police, fire department, etc. Sen. John McCain has made numerous efforts in this legislative season and past ones to expedite the transition so that our heroes will not have communications problems when terrorists attack or a hurricane rips up a state or two. The Senate commerce committee rejected his latest attempt by a vote of 5-17. However, in the bill that went to the Senate floor, the committee did provide $1.25 billion for emergency communications and a national alert system.

Does the fate of the analog airwaves really matter much any more? After all, the majority of us now get our television from cable or satellite. The original DTV-transition plan called for the end of analog broadcasting only after 85 percent of the current audience in a given market is reached by digital signals. Arguably, most of us are there already. But 15 percent of the viewing public is still a big chunk?more than big enough to swing an election?so our politicians will tread warily. Do you think your great-aunt in the boonies wants to hook up a set-top box to her TV? How about all those bedroom sets your kids are watching that are still fed by antennas?

What do you think, folks? Are you a gung-ho HDTV viewer who couldn?t care less about an analog television broadcast system invented in the 1940s? Or does the prospect of your analog TV going dark?or being forced to acquire a set-top companion?really alarm you? I?m as interested in what you think as your elected officials are. Well, almost as interested.

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Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.