2 key digital TV issues remain unsettled

December 21st, 2005

Both chambers of Congress have now approved a Feb. 17, 2009, cutoff for analog TV, along with a subsidy program that will help some viewers make the transition. But two key DTV issues may drive further lobbying and, perhaps, legislation:

Multicasting. Digital TV, through efficient spectrum use, allows each local station to transmit up to five simultaneous streams of programming—in effect, five separate channels. But as things stand, cable companies will be required to carry just one channel per local broadcaster.

Analog signals for cable customers. Current legislation does not allow cable companies to “downconvert” high-definition digital images into a lower-quality analog form that can be shown on most TVs. This is a very big deal for viewers who depend on a cable company to deliver local stations to an analog TV, as Drew Clark explains:

About 85 percent of households in the United States receive television via cable or satellite service. Because they do not use broadcasting frequencies to receive television over-the-air, it was not anticipated—at least until the dropping of the down-conversion provision—that these households would need to purchase digital televisions or acquire set-top converter boxes to view digital broadcast programming after the analog cut-off. […]

National Cable and Telecommunications President Kyle McSlarrow has promised Senate and House leaders that, for cable customers, television viewing options the day after the digital transition would be the same as they had been the day before the transition, and that viewers would not need to make new purchases.

From a technological standpoint, that is indeed the case for the 26 million homes that subscribe to “digital cable.” But the remaining 39 million cable-subscribing homes currently use analog cable systems.

Once broadcasters shift from analog to digital transmissions, cable systems will no longer be authorized to transmit those signals over their analog systems without an agreement from the broadcaster. As a result, a subscriber would have to upgrade and pay more for digital cable service or potentially be deprived of the digital television signal from that broadcaster.

More from the AP:

Cable industry representatives say there is the potential for a service disruption for some of the 40 million cable customers without digital. If they still have an analog TV set in 2009, they could lose some stations.

For those households, cable operators would convert digital signals back to analog for the major broadcast stations. That may not happen for smaller, independent stations unless those stations and cable operators work out a deal or Congress intervenes.

What this means for broadcasters, cable operators and viewers is less than crystal-clear. With so many billion-dollar issues unsettled, I expect a push for further legislation in 2006. In the meantime, confusion will only hinder the digital TV transition.

• Links: National Journal’s Insider Update, Mediaweek , AP [Washington Post]


  1. Ken Seaman says:

    Wouldn’t it be terrible if people had to learn to live with out the Magic box.

    I CAN.

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