The boob tube is about to get a whole lot smarter
It’s the biggest change to television since Gilligan woke up one morning in 1965 and discovered that all the coconuts were suddenly in color. Later this year U.S. television will leave its analog past behind and enter its all-digital future.
[Note: Just this week, Congress pushed the start date back from February 17 to June 12. And in June, they'll probably do it again. Sigh.]
Many Americans may not even notice, at least at first. Others will turn on their TVs and see nothing but snow. Fortunately, there’s easy solution for folks flummoxed by the digital TV transition.
If you get your TV signals over the air and you bought your last set at least five years ago, you may need an analog-to-digital converter box to receive broadcasts. The boxes cost from $40 to $60 apiece, though the Feds are giving out coupons for $40 rebates through the end of March. (For more info on the coupon program and the digital switchover, visit www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-DTV-2009.) So far, more than 16 million coupons have been redeemed, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Even if you have a TV, cable or satellite set top box with a digital tuner inside, you may notice your favorite shows have moved, says FCC Chair Kevin Martin. In many markets, the switch to digital means channel assignments have been re-jiggered. If Lost seems to have gotten lost, you may need to tell your TV or set top to rescan your channels.
Why the big switch to digital? One reason is higher quality broadcasts. Standard TV shows will now be available in DVD-quality video and audio; even Gilligan and his buddies will look and sound better, thanks to the cleaner signal.
More important, because broadcasters can squeeze two or more digital signals into the same amount of spectrum as one analog channel, they’ll be able to offer more content. This could lead to more community-oriented programming for niche audiences, or it could simply mean more reality TV dreck – probably a bit of both.
But the digital TV transition is really the harbinger of a much larger change: the merger of communications, entertainment, and information networks, delivered over a broadband Internet connection to your couch.
You may soon be watching 30 Rock while chatting with other fans and Googling Tina Fey trivia, all on the same screen at the same time, says Kurt Scherf, principal analyst for consumer electronics research firm Parks Associates. You’ll pause the program to answer the phone when an alert pops up on screen. And your favorite “shows” may be YouTube videos or home movies made by strangers on the other side of the globe.
“The blending of communication and entertainment experiences will be one of the biggest trends we see over the next 10 years,” says Scherf.
Dozens of companies are working to make this happen. AT&T and Verizon are building multi-billion-dollar networks to stuff TV, movies on demand, Internet and phone service down one fat fiber optic pipe. Sezmi, which works with smaller service providers, plans to deliver more than 30 over-the-air channels and Internet content before the end of this year. Subscribers can log in to their Sezmi Digital Media Receiver and select what they want to see; like TiVo, Sezmi will learn their preferences and recommend new shoes to watch.
In fact, the whole notion of channels is becoming passe. Web sites like Hulu and Fancast already make broadcast content available 24/7 from a variety of networks. It’s only a matter of time before they migrate from the computer on your desk to the set top in your living room.
In the future there may be just one channel: Me TV — the stuff you like to watch and nothing else. So when you turn on the set and find nothing on, you’ll have only yourself to blame.
A slightly different version of this story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of US Airways Magazine — my last Our Digital Life column (sniff).
Shot of The Skipper and his Li’l Buddy borrowed from TVcrazy.net.