Up in the Air with HDTV: The Price of Turning off Analog and Going Digital

Mike West- If you've looked at the ads in the Sunday paper lately, you may have noticed that TV sets are selling for less than ever. Not too long ago, a name brand 19-inch color TV cost at least three hundred dollars. Today, the price tag has been cut in half. On the other hand, "digital" and "digital ready" sets will set you back thousands of dollars. The government has ordered all television stations to switch from analog to digital signals by the year 2006. Right now most stations broadcast in both. Industry insiders insist the conversion won't cost consumers a lot of money. But that doesn't change the perception that old sets are being unloaded because they'll soon be useless. TV salesman Ed Ostrander says it's a common, but unfounded concern...and that low- priced televisions are really the result of mass production savings.

Ed Ostrander- It certainly isn't a panic by TV people trying to push analog televisions because they're going to antiquated soon, because that's not the case.

MW- But, you can't help notice that newer sets are taking up more display and advertising space than ever, while anything with a 32-inch screen or smaller has a discount sticker on it. But Ostrander says people with old sets have nothing to worry about. He's confident that by the 2006 deadline, someone will come out with a cheap converter box.

EO- There is going to come a day when they flick off the switch on analog. At that point your cable company and or yourself will ad a box to your TV set which will connect to the back of your TV and you'll keep on watching that same TV set.

MW- Consumers can only hope Ostrander is right. Right now, going digital is expensive and you really don't get much for the money. Even though most TV stations send out programming in analog and digital, viewers with five-thousand dollar digital sets don't really benefit. Unless the program is being filmed or was recorded in a digital format, you're still basically looking at an analog picture. And right now only a couple of network shows and a few sporting events are produced entirely in digital. The other option is buying a satellite system. The package includes a converter because the satellite signal is already in digitized. Mark Smukler is the manager of WVIZ, Cleveland's public television station. He says this is nothing to lose sleep over.

Mark Smukler- You don't have to worry about it. This is not something that you are going to have to rush out tomorrow and start expending serious money in order to be able to watch television that you're used to watching. You don't have to do that - this is not right on the horizon - and there is no reason to panic.

MW- Smukler says a loophole in the law will allow stations to delay the transition.

MS- Congress has put some language in place that, I believe, says a certain percentage of people have to able to receive the digital signal in your market in order for you to have turn back your analog transmitter. There are lots of people that are fairly optimistic about their projection of adoption. There are very few that actually believe the percentage that is set is actually going to happen by 2006.

MW- Nobody knows exactly how the government or anyone else will determine how many people can pick up digital signals, and exactly when that number passes the eighty-five percent mark. Right now, a quarter of all Cleveland area viewers still get their TV off the airwaves that is not through cable or satellite delivery. So why not just let TV stations broadcast in analog and digital forever? In short, the answer is money. There is only "so much" space on the airwaves for TV signals. And when the switch to digital is complete, it will free up some very valuable airwave spectrums. David Fisk with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says they can be put to better use than broadcasting TV programs.

David Fisk- Those channels that are currently being used for analog will be auctioned off to other uses. There's a number of companies that are interested in what are called 3G. It's third generation wireless services. Those are going to be the basis for having Internet access through portable wireless devices. There's just a lot of advantages are going to come from using the spectrum. The TV signals are considered beach front property in terms of the value.

MW- There's no question that it will cost consumers money to enter to the digital TV era. But according to Fisk, the government is willing to let the market take it's own course.

DF- To say that we're not concerned - I don't think that's an accurate statement. Industry and markets and business plans ultimately have to drive technology, not the government coming in and prescribing specific regulations or specific technical standards.

MW- Viewers will eventually be forced to convert to digital one way or the other, in what's being called a revolution in TV quality. In the years to come, we can look forward to marveling at the "life like" pictures, being broadcast, even while we complain about the dumbing down of the content. In Cleveland, I'm Mike West for 90.3 WCPN, 90.3FM.

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