Off The Digital Cliff

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Not far from the kelp seaweed forests and the seawalls that serve as condos for more birds than can be counted along Monterey Bay and the road to nearby Pebble Beach, the independent cable system operators of America gathered last night to deal with the tide coming in.

That undercurrent at The Independent Show, being held at the Monterey Conference Center: the advent of digital television. The hard date for broadcasters to begin sending their airborne signals in digits is Feb 17, 2009. But tell Kevin Martin this, and soon: a lot of independent operators don’t want to stop serving up analog signals to their customers, on Feb. 17, Feb. 18 or any other date after the changeover.

Why? Pretty simple. Delivering analog signals to customers will be a distinct competitive advantage. If broadcasters have to deliver all their signals in digits and satellite services already deliver all their programming that way, the only good option for consumers who want to keep their analog sets going will be … cable. Don’t mess with the government’s $40 coupons for digital to analog converter boxes. Just put in a cable box. And get a lot more than just the digital signals from local broadcasters.

It’s retro. Become a winner in the digital age, by offering pre-digital technology. It’s as if you spotted significant demand for eight-track tapes, while the world is moving to downloading music directly to hard drives.

Oh, there a few ideas being thrown around as to how to help the FCC solve the dilemma of how to get all consumers to be able to receive broadcast signals in digits. One proposal is to take the $40 coupons and install basic cable service, instead. Another is to take the coupons and swap ‘em out for set-top boxes that can take down the digital signals from local broadcasters and throw them up on a screen as is.

But deliver all the signals in digits, like broadcasters must? Not on your life. That would cut off millions of TV viewers, not benefit them.

Sure, digital signals will have to be “remodulated” into analog versions the old sets can handle.

But, if you thought that cable really wanted to be all-digital any time soon, you’re sadly mistaken, Mr. Chairman.

It’s much better to have to stand on both sides of the fence.

Because no one else will.

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