Long Live the Analog TV Set


Rumors of the death of the analog TV set are premature.

Sure, the countdown is in full swing toward the last minute of Feb. 17, 2009, when all full-power television stations in this country must turn off the transmitters that send out analog broadcast signals. As soon as Feb. 18 begins, the only way to send out a program will be digits. Should be fun to watch David Letterman that night. He's probably already got his “Top 10 Things that Can Go Wrong with Tonight's Digital TV Transition” ready to go. And to deliver at the stroke of midnight, to see what happens.

Sure, there could be some odd hiccups. As recounted in this edition's Spotlight by Washington news editor Ted Hearn (“Unclear Picture,” page 38), Allbritton Communications and Gannett Co. are warning that the Federal Communications Commission itself may not be able to receive TV signals after the changeover, if they aren't able to properly angle their digital antennas into the heart of downtown Washington, D.C., where they deliver ABC and CBS programs. Kevin Martin could miss Letterman's list, if he's watching the transition from his office and not from the comfort of his electronically decked-out home (“Martin: I'm No Cable-Hater,” May 14, 2007).

It's telling, perhaps, that Martin has three set-top boxes in his household. That means he won't have to dump any analog TV sets he might have when the digital-transmission mandate begins.

If he's got boxes from a cable, satellite or telephone TV service, he and his family will be set. None of these multichannel-video providers have any incentive to dump the analog TV user from their customer rolls. That's why, of course, cable agreed last week to serve both analog and digital TV viewers with the prime broadcast of each local station in this country that exercises must-carry rights, through 2012.

In fact, the Martin family may not even need set-top boxes to keep getting analog programming. The digital signal of a local TV station can be converted at a cable operator's headend and sent throughout the local system in analog form. So even that 19-incher in the attic can be kept connected to the wall jack, if he and his family so desire.

All of which means analog TV sets — and analog programming tiers — will live on after the digital-TV transmission deadline.

That is no small matter. The FCC itself estimates 40 million U.S. households subscribe only to analog tiers of programming. The National Cable Television Cooperative estimates 200 million analog TV sets are still working in the U.S.' roughly 112 million television households.

So let the marketing begin. Cable, satellite and telephone TV operators now become the safe havens for any TV owners who are worried about what will happen to their ability to view local programming after Feb. 18, 2009.

Depending on what a local cable operator does, in fact, those analog TV-set owners who today receive only over-the-air programming may not even have to go get a certificate from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that gets them a $40 subsidy on a digital-to-analog converter box. Because they wouldn't need a box at all.

A cable operator, under last week's agreement, gets a choice: Either convert the digital signal at the headend and send an analog signal to all subscribers, or provide each analog TV set user with a set-top box that can handle the conversion, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

So the options for an analog TV-set owner become: Plug into the wall. Or get a box. Don't junk the set.

That means the idea that millions of analog sets will suddenly become fodder for the nation's landfills (“Pulling Back From The Digital Cliff,” Aug. 6, 2007) is looking a lot less likely.

It stands to economic reason. As long as there are functioning analog TV-sets — with paying customers behind them — there will be signals sent that they can watch. Or cheap mechanisms for them to use to convert signals. Heck, why spend $40 or $80 on a converter box when even today you can get a 20” TV for $143 at Best Buy that receives either digital or analog signals over the air, in standard definition?

The end of the analog era will come only as each TV fan completes the transition to digital sets.