Clip art from Microsoft Office Online An interesting metaphor given the wet, rainy weather we have this week in the Redmond area: 40 days and nights from now, the television world should be changing to digital broadcast in the States.

But not if Obama’s team request for a delay in digital TV transition is heard. As Joelle Tessler, technology writer for AP reported today (January 8, 2009)…

"President-elect Barack Obama is urging Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won't be ready.

"In a letter to key lawmakers Thursday, Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta said the digital transition needs to be delayed largely because the Commerce Department has run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. People who don't have cable or satellite service or a new TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working.

"Obama officials are also concerned that the government is not doing enough to help Americans - particularly those in rural, poor or minority communities - prepare for and navigate the transition."

The story was reported broadly, but isn’t met with broad support: this from PBS President Paula Kerger who called digital delays "inexcusable." As Mark Dawidziak (Plain Dealer Television Critic) reports…

"Paula Kerger, the president of PBS, used her semi-annual meeting with the nation's TV critics to wag an admonishing finger at the federal overseers of the Feb. 17 switch to digital television. She is particularly distressed that viewers seeking coupons for converter boxes are being on a waiting list. "I'm very disheartened to hear that, a month before the DTV deadline, the federal government has run out of money to help citizens purchase digital converter boxes," Kerger said.

"Consumers need those coupons, and they need them now, and to put them on a waiting list, which is what is happening, is inexcusable."

This is nothing new: as reported last year, government officials chided the Digital TV transition effort.  Kim Hart wrote in the Washington Post (July 11, 2008) that the "billion-dollar program to help consumers prepare for the upcoming switch to digital television has been mismanaged and is running out of money, key lawmakers said, prompting concerns that millions of TV viewers could be left in the dark."

Further, Hart wrote that the Digital TV transition wouldn't be as easy as it had been advertised.

Generally, if you have a television that receives TV channels locally via the analogue antenna on your roof or atop the TV itself, you'll likely need a new digital converter box and antenna to receive your local channels. 

If you have a Windows XP Media Center or Windows Vista computer coupled with an analogue broadcast tuner card, you'll need to either upgrade to a suitable and supported digital tuner card or USB peripheral, or connect a digital converter box after February 17, 2009.  This will enable your computer to receive what's called local "over-the-air" (aka OTA) television broadcasts with a digital antenna.  See the site DTV Answers: What you need to know about the February 17, 2009 switch to DTV.  This site provides info on the switch from the old analogue TV signals to digital television, or DTV.  For more information, visit the US FCC website on the digital TV transition at www.dtv.gov.

(Where was this kind of site and promotional effort when the government was preparing for the change to daylight saving time in the States?)

As I noted in a this prior post, a majority of Americans today receive television via cable and satellite connections (70% are connected to cable). So if you subscribe to cable, satellite or fiber-provided television then you should be unaffected: for the most part, analog television receivers should continue to work as normal before with cable TV and satellite TV receivers, plus other video devices such as camcorders and VCRs.

Key word there: "should."

It turns out that the national digital transition is not the only digital television challenge.

As Brier Dudley, Seattle Times staff columnist, reported in his article "A digital switch on way for some cable customers, too" (last Dec 10th, 2008) that Comcast decided to take the opportunity in February to make a digital switch of their own, "a move that will affect more than 1 million households in Washington state." The move will require cable box needed for just about every television.  (See more FAQs in his post on "Comcast digital switch stirs more questions.")

Comcast's advertising here exclaimed that "current customers don't have to do anything" come 2-17-09.  That's not quite accurate. As I noted in a Tweet to comcastcares (to Comcast's rep on Twitter), the challenge is that most digital ready TVs, DVRs & PCs (with Windows Media Center) will now need a new converter set-top box if I want to receive stations above channel 30 on Comcast's local channel map given the in-house cable connections to TVs are analogue.  And that means that most digital-ready televisions won't be able to decrypt the encoded digital channels from Comcast above channel 30. 

Although local cable subscribers will continue to get the local main affiliates in the lower channel map (single digits) plus a few local access stations, home shopping and the Discovery Channel, much of the programming we watch at home (CNN, CNBC, SciFi and of course MTV) will require inserting a digital converter into the mix.

Not pretty.

Comcast is also placing a limit of two free digital to analog boxes per home.  Recently, the fount of knowledge that is USA Today reported that the there are more TVs in the average American home than people…

"That threshold was crossed within the past two years [of 9/21/2006], according to Nielsen Media Research. There are 2.73 TV sets in the typical home and 2.55 people, the researchers said."

… so it appears that this may not equate to (as Comcast advertising stated) the "same experience as you have today" if you have more than two televisions.  YMMV.

I wasn't planning on adding yet another set top box to my television system, another remote and adding the intricacies of an IR blaster if I want to seamlessly integrate the set top converter box with my DVR and Media Center.

As noted in the article "You don't need satellite TV when times get tough" from CNET News (December 19, 2008) Marguerite Reardon covered what one family found when they decided to cut some of their expenses at home, including their satellite television subscription…

"[Debra James of Oakland] said she found a wealth of legitimate sources for TV programming online. Sites such as Hulu, Fancast, Joost, YouTube, and most major TV networks' Web sites offer TV shows and other video content for free. Using an existing rooftop antenna, James plugged her TV into the hook-up to get more than 50 high-definition TV channels over-the-air. The cost for these HD channels: zero.

"And instead of spending an extra $20 a month for HBO or any other premium movie channels, James subscribed to a $17-a-month Netflix service, which allows her to rent three movies at a time..."

We may vote with our feet and move off the cable television grid and see if we can implement a similar experience at home.

Tags: Windows, Media Center, television, DVR, Obama, policy.

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