Courtland Milloy: Digital TV May Promise More Than It Delivers

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In honor of the TV signal that brought me such childhood viewing pleasures as "Howdy Doody," "I Love Lucy," "The Nat King Cole Show" and "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports," I have decided to let my portable analog set die in peace.

I'd rather have the signal simply fade away than try to pimp my TV with some overpriced digital converter box. Was this really necessary? Do we really need sharper-looking, crisper-sounding junk clogging the airways?

My old TV worked just fine, with a single telescopic antenna bringing in UHF and VHF signals from local commercial and public TV stations. It could also run on batteries, which meant that neither Comcast nor Verizon nor Pepco could cut me off from the rest of the world.

And what does the Federal Communications Commission say the over-the-air TV viewer gets out of the move to digital? A richer viewing experience. While looking at what? "The Simpsons" reruns? A Tyler Perry "House of Payne" pain-a-thon?

Yes, I have cable TV, too. But I dread turning it on. (Okay, I'll turn it on now and read for you the first things that pop up: Hellboy II/Next Friday/Don't Tell Babysitter's Dead/House on Haunted Hill. You get my drift.)

Some broadcasters say digital transmission will enable free TV to better compete with cable and satellite TV. So, someday you'll be able to watch "Aliens vs. Predator 3" on broadcast TV and have it look and sound just as good as, say, "Aliens vs. Predator -- Requiem" on cable or "Alien vs. Predator" on satellite?

In fairness to the FCC, there was another reason for going digital: "repurposing" analog airwaves for advanced commercial wireless networks and for emergency responders.

It's hard to argue against improving communications for police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. But in the meantime, an estimated 3 million U.S. households had not made the change when the clock ran out Friday. There were about 60,000 in the Washington area, although my portable TV hasn't gone completely blank just yet. I'm still getting round-the-clock warnings that the end is here. Scare-tactic advertising for pay TV, if you ask me. And it appears to be working.

Jeffrey Wlodarczak, managing director of Hudson Square Research in New York, told The Washington Post that the pay TV industry expects to gain an estimated half-million customers in the switch. And Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable company, says it has added 80,000 former over-the-air viewers in the first three months of the year. Satellite provider DirecTV said it signed up 50,000 to 100,000 former broadcast viewers.

As it turns out, digital tuners aren't all that they're cracked up to be. For instance, you might not be able to get a signal. According to experts, digital signals don't travel as far or hold up to interference as well as analog.

So, after forking over $50 to $80 for the converter box, you might also need to buy an antenna, which could cost much more. At least one-third of the callers to the FCC's help centers have complained of reception problems.

I didn't have serious reception problems with my analog set. Sure, there was the occasional static snow. But it seemed to soften news that was coming to me directly from some crime scene -- which happened pretty much every day. You don't always want to see blood in the street first thing in the morning.

Nor did I mind the blurry live feeds from traffic cams. Who needs to see flashing brake lights along I-95 from Lorton to the Occoquan to know that it's rush hour anyway?

But, hey, what's done is done. Besides, fewer than 15 percent of U.S viewers rely on free, over-the air television. Or rather, used to. There is no going back just for them.

So the only question now is what to do with my beloved dead set. Convert it to a fish tank, perhaps, or an ant farm. I could dedicate it to another analog favorite of the 1960s: "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" with Marlin Perkins.

Second only to Captain Kangaroo.


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