Monday, February 09, 2009

Analog TV in the U. S.: Not Quite Dead Yet

Politics gets into everything nowadays, even my lecture notes for an electromagnetics course I hope to teach next fall. In the process of trying to give a more vivid picture of what the electromagnetic spectrum is like, I included a list of radio and television frequencies and what they were used for. One of them is "Old TV channel 56—now reassigned to other uses." When I wrote that, I was counting on having the switch to digital TV in the U. S. to happen on schedule, which until the politicians got into the act again was a week from tomorrow. But now, if President Obama signs legislation passed by Congress, which he has promised to do, the switch is delayed at least until June, and there is a good chance that even then, Congress and the President will take a look at the situation and say, "Well, there's still all these poor people who still haven't got digital converters, so let's wait another little while."

I confess to feelings of great ambivalence about the whole thing: digital versus analog TV, how the switchover has been handled here, and for that matter, TV in general. In these feelings, I continue a long-standing if obscure tradition of TV engineers who at best viewed TV in a dim light (metaphorically speaking) or disapproved of it altogether. The engineer who could be considered as the father of electronic television, Vladimir K. Zworykin, is quoted in the Wikipedia article about him as saying, "I hate what they've done to my child . . . I would never let my own children watch it." This feeling was shared by at least one other electronics engineer of note, Harold A. Wheeler, whose inventions were fundamental to both radio and television. For many years, my wife and I did not own a television set, and when we eventually got one, all we did with it was watch old movies on VCR tapes and DVDs. Finally, a couple of years ago when my father-in-law moved in with us, he received a large-screen TV as a gift and we hooked it up to cable TV. But I still suspect that in some ways the world might be better off without TV.

That being said, I earned my living for a couple of years around 1980 devising ways to keep people who hadn't paid for cable TV from watching it. This involved work at Scientific-Atlanta in what was called "scrambling." In the process, I had to get thoroughly familiar with the analog TV system, and purely for that reason I will be sorry to see the departure of an old acquaintance of long standing. Like any old friend, its flaws became as obvious to me as its virtues. In contrast to the European systems of analog color TV, the U. S. system (termed "NTSC" for the National Television Standards Committee that devised it in the early 1950s) did not reproduce the hue of colors very well unless the entire transmission system was carefully and repeatedly calibrated to maintain something called "constant group delay." For this reason, engineers joked that NTSC actually stood for "Never Twice the Same Color." Nevertheless, it served us reasonably well for over half a century, and I am somewhat sorry to see it go. If in fact it goes at all.

As to the ethics of the thing, I don't believe any wrongdoing can be laid at the feet of the engineers who cooked up digital TV and did the intensely political work of getting major companies and industry groups to agree on the new standards. By most engineering criteria, digital TV is a great advance over analog TV. It does more: it allows several sub-channels within one main channel, allows for a variety of display formats, and delivers an essentially studio-quality image everywhere within range of the transmitter, without the old analog problems of "snow" and "ghosts." (Of course, it does tend to fall off a cliff into complete disaster when you get out of range, but that is how all digital media tend to work: either very well or not at all.) And once it is implemented, we can get by with less spectrum bandwidth devoted to TV, which is how the federal government raised nearly $20 billion by auctioning off the surplus spectrum that will be freed up when all the stations go digital. This will lead, one hopes, to a variety of new digital wireless services, which is why some companies such as Qualcomm who were about to roll out such services complained loudly at the delay.

In comparison with how the digital rollout has been handled in England, the FCC and the TV industry stumbled rather badly here. In England, where everybody who watches TV pays a yearly license fee to the government to support the BBC and so on, the conversion happened in geographic stages and abundant help and equipment was made available. In the U. S., by contrast, there's been a lot of one-way communication in the form of advertising, an underfunded coupon program that assumes a lot of abilities on the part of the consumer (how to get the coupon, what to buy with it, how to hook up the box), and by some estimates, a failure to reach millions of people who still watch TV over the air with old analog sets. These folks tend to have lower incomes and are older and often socially isolated—people for whom TV is arguably one of their main companions. And I agree it would be a shame to simply cut them off without any help or assistance about what to do when that occurs. But no matter what we do, there will be some people who will be caught unawares no matter how much spade work is done in preparing the public for the change. And the rest of the country should not be held hostage to a few people who will have their screens go blank when digital comes along.

So maybe one delay is understandable. But such things can get habit-forming, like resolutions to quit smoking. Mark Twain said it was easy to quit smoking; he'd done it dozens of times. Let's hope we use the next four months to help more of the people who need help with the digital transition, and then go ahead and get it over with.

Sources: A news article describing the latest news on legislation to delay the switchover can be found at the Reuters website

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