More bitching about public radio

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I generally hate On the Media, and today's piece on the DTV Transition didn't disappoint:
Brooke Gladstone: Could you tell me again why we're doing this?
Kim Hart [WaPo]: Sure. Well, this was all part of a plan that was designed to reclaim the spectrum that the over the air broadcasters and network broadcasters had been using for over half a century. The reason they wanted to do that is because they wanted to give them back to public safety organizations so they could use them for their first responders communication networks as well as make some money for the government and sell them at an auction to wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T.
BG: Now what we're talking about, obviously, is switching from over the air broadcast, once accessible to anyone who has a bent coathanger and a TV to digital reception, which most people get through cable or satellite receivers. How many people still rely on the rabbit ears?

KH: Well anywhere between 10 million and 20 million households, especially in rural areas. Internet doesn't reach all the way out to where they live and in some markets this is their main gateway to information, local news, and emergency.

To listen to Gladstone, you'd think that DTV was going to mean that you couldn't get TV over the air, but of course this is completely untrue. To recap, in order to transmit television signals over the air you need to encode them somehow. Digital and analog are two different methods of encoding the information—and of course there's more than one way to do each of them, with the US and Europe using different standards. Digital transmission has some advantages, including more efficient use of the channel bandwidth and more flexibility, which is why we're cutting over to it. Unsurprisingly, if you have an old analog set, you won't be able to receive digital signals. This would have been just as true if, for instance, the US had decided to switch from NTSC (the American standard) to PAL (the European one). Actually, it's sort of a minor miracle that the black and white to color transition was performed in a backward compatible way, due to some very clever engineering. [*].

So, while it's true that people generally get digital signals through cable or satellite that's because the cable and satellite providers have switched over already (and why? because it's better), there's absolutely no technical reason why it can't be used for over the air transmission. It's just a matter of having a compatible receiver. In fact, if you'd just stop being cheap and fork over for a new TV with such a receiver, it would work for you already. The whole point of this elaborate converter distribution program is to let you receive digital signals without forking over for a new TV. So, it's hardly like all those poor people in rural areas are suddenly going to be cut off from all communications in some post-video-apocalyptic nightmare.

While I'm on the topic, I don't really think it's accurate to imply that the point of the switchover was to reclaim the spectrum for public safety applications. Obviously, that's a bonus, but it wasn't my impression that that was the primary driver.

6 Comments

a) Then why listen?

b) My GF's parents have a nice projector based HDTV (an older one but still nice), and they literally use a rabbit-ear antenna on it, it works pretty well (although they should at LEAST get a better antenna).

Yah, I heard that too. It kind of sucked. OTOH, I usually find On The Media is a pretty good listen, if only to find out about current controversies in journalism.

Rabbit ears are hit or miss. In my parents condo, in Florida, a $20 set of unamplified rabbit ears yield brilliant digital reception on one side of the place and are completely useless on the other side. That hit-or-miss aspect of using an antenna versus just ponying up for cable/satellite is a big attraction to people.

(My own cable regularly annoys me. It seems that Houston Comcast just sticks their own antennae up in the air to pick up the local channels, rather than having hard lines, so bad weather can still impact signal quality.)

People get easily confused: I just sold through craigslist an old TV and the (not old) lady had no idea that the transition wouldn't affect her since she got it through cable

I am a TV luddite without cable. Living where I do, that means I only get a small handful of over-the-air channels. I forked out $8-after-rebate for a digital converter and used the old, unamplified rabbit ears that I bought eons ago. Result: I get the same channels in digital, with a much clearer picture. And I get an extra channel (PBS in Spanish, it seems) because stations can split digital signals.

My impression (gleaned from many Popular Science issues in the '90s) was that the driver for digital television was simply US fears that the Japanese would open a television gap.

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