The Digital Transition, TV's Long-Running Horror Show

Thursday, March 5, 2009; Page D02

The digital TV transition has been going on for longer than you'd think -- two decades ago, people in Washington were evaluating proposals to improve the quality of TV broadcasts. But this long march is nearing its end.

Millions of Americans enjoy high-definition broadcasts for free. More than a third of U.S. broadcasters shut off their analog signals last month, and the remainder will by June 12. But a small minority of viewers remain perplexed and angered by the digital transition, as if it were a plot perpetrated by the same illuminati responsible for outsourced tech support and scissors-proof "blister pack" packaging.

That's untrue: The DTV transition has been far too disorganized to be the product of any conspiracy.

Consider how a few major DTV issues have played out over the past decade or so. Could they have been better managed? Sometimes yes, sometimes no -- and in one case, the DTV transition went better than many people expected.

-- DTV or HDTV? Nine years ago, some smart people thought the high-definition part of digital TV was a waste of time; better to focus on cheaper "enhanced-definition" TVs with DVD-grade resolution. Meanwhile, many networks didn't want to invest in HD. For example, Fox didn't upgrade its broadcasts to high-def until 2003.

And yet the pie-eyed optimists who, back in the mid-1990s, pushed for a digital-TV specification that included multiple flavors of high definition got this one right. This standard was also flexible enough to accommodate the switch from cathode-ray-tube TVs to flat-panel LCDs and plasmas, which don't redraw moving images the way their bulky predecessors did.

Had we taken another path, we'd have the pain of the digital transition without the pleasure of HDTV.

-- TVs without tuners: If the industry underestimated its ability to make HDTV affordable, it overestimated its ability to do the same for over-the-air digital reception.

For several years after the first DTVs went on sale in 1998, almost no sets included digital tuners. But even as costs declined and performance improved (by August 2004, tuners from LG and Samsung delivered great results in tests around the Washington area), manufacturers kept shipping "HD-ready" sets without digital tuners.

To ensure that broadcasters would give up their analog spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission began requiring that TVs include digital tuners. But the FCC phased in this rule too hesitantly-- it didn't cover sets smaller than 25 inches until March 2007, less than two years before the Feb. 17 deadline Congress just punted to June.

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