SQUAWK box: US digital switchover

The countdown has begun: the digital tv transition - the federally mandated switchover from analog to exclusively digital broadcasting of free-tv programming -
March 1, 2008

The countdown has begun: the digital TV transition – the federally mandated switchover from analog to exclusively digital broadcasting of free-TV programming – is less than a year away in the US. Once the transition happens, Americans with an analog TV won’t be able to receive over-the-air broadcasts without a set-top converter box. Paul Gallant, SVP and cable and media analyst at Washington, DC-based Stanford Group Company, says, ‘The DTV switchover will directly affect millions of viewers, specifically those who have analog TV sets that aren’t connected to cable or satellite TV service. Those will go dark on February 17, 2009.’

Gallant says Congress is concerned that some people will lose TV service because of lack of awareness of the DTV transition, so it is ‘pressing the FCC to require more publicity from broadcasters.’ In its effort to help, PBS recently began airing consumer awareness segments about the switchover in everyday terms on its local stations. This is part of a larger campaign that will demonstrate viewers’ options for making the conversion. Paula Kerger, PBS’ president and CEO, stresses that the DTV transition is an important priority for the pubcaster. ‘Our programming is available to 99% of America’s TV households and we want to make certain that is the case a year from now when the transition is complete,’ she says. ‘This issue is especially important for the many households that depend on over-the-air broadcasting as their sole source of television and for the minority, older and rural populations that [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] research states will be disproportionately affected.’

While there are perks to switching to DTV for broadcasters – DTV allows them to multicast, and has the potential to provide future interactive services analog technology couldn’t – the transition is still seen by many of them as ‘either a neutral or slightly negative event,’ says Gallant. ‘If everything goes right, they will retain all their viewers. But if some viewers can’t get the digital signals and decide to get cable or satellite, shows on broadcast TV will lose some viewers to cable channels.’ Let the countdown continue.

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