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After Bouts of Static, Digital TV Takes Over

Nadia Cubes, left, and Margarita Cabrera, center, get help from RadioShack sales representative Evelyn Rosario, far right, at a store in the Bronx, N.Y.
Nadia Cubes, left, and Margarita Cabrera, center, get help from RadioShack sales representative Evelyn Rosario, far right, at a store in the Bronx, N.Y. (By David Goldman -- Associated Press)
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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Almost all analog television broadcasts ended yesterday, but the world refrained from following suit.

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No crowds rioted in the streets. So far as we know, nobody lit any analog sets on fire in protest. The Republic still stands.

As self-inflicted technological crises go, this wasn't even close to Y2K.

What did happen: People who had waited until the final days, then hours, had a predictably hard time figuring out this digital-TV thing. Some called local broadcasters for help to tune their signals -- WTTG (Channel 5) told The Post's Paul Farhi that it received 162 calls in the two hours after it shut off its analog signal at noon, while WRC (Channel 4) had only 75 calls to its help line between 5 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Others looked to the Feds for help. By 2 p.m. yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission had received almost a half-million phone calls on its own DTV line. The FCC reported that most of these calls involved setup issues or tuning problems that could be fixed by having a TV or converter box rescan the airwaves for new digital-TV channels.

That's not the whole story. Some viewers tried to get digital reception to work months or weeks ago, then gave up, and have since knuckled under and joined the vast majority of viewers who subscribe to cable or satellite service. (Other viewers have been able to drop cable or satellite in favor of free digital TV.)

We probably have more unpleasant surprises waiting; many people may not realize how many ways they tune into TV. I never would have guessed how many people listen to the audio of local broadcasts on radios with TV-band tuners -- a pastime now impossible, at least until somebody ships a radio with a digital-TV tuner.

But considering the magnitude of the DTV transition -- an estimated 2.8 million people were said to be unprepared for the switch -- yesterday's non-chaos must count as a victory. The digital switchover is what the computing industry, with a charming lack of pretense, calls a "forced upgrade": A company elects not to support your current software or hardware, ultimately leaving you no choice but to buy the new thing.

That can work well when Apple is selling a new iPod, but the electronics industry is usually too sane to try to pull this stunt with the broader market. People get used to their TVs and stereos, keep them for years -- often longer than their cars -- and resent being told that they have to retire their old hardware.

But once the government settled on a digital-TV system that needed its own extra set of airwaves, there was no way out. Unless we were going to hand over a huge chunk of the airwaves to broadcasters free, we'd need some of the old analog spectrum back.

If you think the government has gotten way too involved in the workings of the banking and automotive industries, take a step back and consider what TV stations, electronics manufacturers and retailers have been ordered to do over the past decade. We've had government-imposed deadlines for broadcasters to get their digital broadcasts on the air, then take their analog signals offline. We've had FCC-determined schedules for TVs of various sizes to include digital tuners, and for stores to get sets with only analog tuners off their shelves.

The crazy thing is, it seems to have worked. Analog TV is done, many of us can watch much better TV at no charge, and in a few years we should have some terrific new telecommunications services riding on the old spectrum no longer occupied by those broadcasts.

We the TV-Watching People turned out to be a resourceful, resilient bunch this time around. But let's not draw too many lessons from this strange experiment: Don't even think about suggesting a mandatory digital upgrade for radio.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.



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