Destined for the Dark Ages?

Allison Smith

Is our reporter the only one struggling with the digital to analog conversion?

Credit: DKS Editors

View graphics detailing three television stations’ change in coverage area after the digital switch.

After a long day on June 12, I was looking forward to relaxing, watching the “Tonight Show” and maybe having a few laughs. I didn’t count on the DTV transition – when television switched from analog to digital – to turn my relaxation into frustration.

Being a poor college student, I had invested in a cheap antenna instead of going with cable. The box had said “DTV ready” when I bought it, so I thought I’d be safe. I guess I was just one of the many who were misinformed about the transition.

The day of the transition, only NBC worked with my antenna. I was satisfied. At least I wouldn’t miss the “Tonight Show” with Conan O’Brien.

That night, Conan joked about the transition by counting down on his watch until midnight. A few seconds after he counted to zero, the signal went out.

So I was on the hunt for a new, inexpensive way to get television.

I’m not the only one in Kent who lost signal after the transition. Faye Genter, a city resident, had been using an antenna.

“The only channel that wound up working was Channel 3 and it was just like this horrible flippy thing that was saying ‘Hey, you need to buy a converter box,'” Genter said. “All right, you know, I’ll pop in a DVD.”

She said the only thing that bugs her is that her 2-year-old son can’t watch his favorite shows in the morning.

“He watches all the PBS shows in the morning like Barney,” Genter said.

In order to better understand my situation, I sought an expert on DTV.

Scott Fybush is an industry observer and editor of NorthEast Radio Watch. He is also one of the lead DTV educators for public radio outlet WXXI in Rochester, N.Y.

Fybush said people who are 25 and younger were surprisingly the least prepared for the transition. So that made me feel a little better. I consider myself somewhat technologically savvy, so I was pretty surprised when my signal cut out.

Fybush said he thinks a lot of the reason why people 25 years and younger weren’t ready is because full episodes of popular TV shows are now being offered online. Then, he turned the interview around and asked me a few questions on what I watch online.

I told him that I actually did consider just living without TV and watching my favorite shows online. But, I told him, if I wanted to catch up on a show like “Lost,” half of the most recent season has already been taken off of ABC’s Web site.

However, there are some Web sites that I am quite happy with, such as Hulu. I caught up with the rest of the “Tonight Show” that I missed the night of the transition while I was eating breakfast the next morning.

“I think Hulu is probably just the very earliest generation of something much bigger and ultimately much more transformative that will be coming down the pike. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of that yet,” Fybush said. “Who knows what this is all going to look like in 10 or 15 years. It’s wide open to change still.”

So why did the government decide to switch from analog to digital?

Fybush said with the wireless spectrum demand, such as 3G and 4G technology, there weren’t enough frequencies to support television on cell phones. So when the signals went digital, the government sold the frequencies to various cell phone service providers. So this was another option for me, when I get a new phone in July, I could just sign up to get TV on the phone instead of at home.

“A chunk of the money that the government got for selling off these ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels went back in to fund the coupon program,” Fybush said. “The cost of making this transition was being born, at least in part, by the companies that bought up that spectrum.”

So, I wondered, how do the digital converter boxes work?

Fybush said the boxes are like mini TV tuners that have their own remote. They take the digital signal coming in through the antenna and convert it into an analog signal that the TV can read, he said.

The problem that I had was the converter box. Since the antenna I bought said it was DTV ready, I had assumed I wouldn’t have to buy a converter box. But Fybush told me just because that’s what it said, doesn’t mean it’s true. He told me that while it may have been DTV ready, only televisions made within the last few years would be able to get signal without a converter box.

Fybush also said the United States is not the only country to have gone digital.

“A big chunk of Europe so far has gone (digital). Britain transitioned over the last couple of years,” Fybush said. “The way they did it -which in some ways may have made more sense for us, but it’s too late now – is they did it regionally. They would convert one city at a time, which allowed them to focus this real strong transition effort.”

The transition was originally supposed to happen in February.

“There was a big push back just before that February date with people saying, ‘Wait a minute. You’re asking people to potentially have to go out and install outdoor antennas in the middle of the winter and to try to get people out to remote areas to install boxes in the middle of winter. Maybe we need to rethink this.’ And so they shoved it back four months,” Fybush said.

He said Canada has a tentative date set for their digital transition for August 2011, but he’s not sure if it will actually happen. Fybush said because Canada has such a high cable penetration, it may not be necessary.

“What’ll happen I think, with a lot of the countries like Mexico and Canada that use our TV standard, they’re going to sort of be pushed along into having to do it because the TVs that receive analog eventually just aren’t going to be manufactured anymore,” he said.

A few days before the transition, I had seen a commercial saying I could get cable for $9.95 a month for 12 months. I wrote down the phone number, just in case.

Fybush told me that cable companies are required by the government to provide cheap basic cable. He said that before the transition, you had to dig in order to get the cable companies to tell you about it. But now with people losing antenna signal, cable has a new niche market.

So I weighed all of my options: TV on my cell phone was too expensive, I didn’t want to buy a converter box and watching shows online just wasn’t the same. Nothing beats sitting around with your friends and watching your favorite show. So I got cable. Now I can watch the “Tonight Show” without a hitch.

Contact principal reporter Allison Smith at [email protected]