Last Thursday night, I was privileged to participate in a 14-person panel discussion on the state of the digital TV transition at the National Association of Broadcasters offices in Washington, DC.
The occasion was the November meeting of the local chapter of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), which was moderated by Graham Jones of NAB (National Association of Broadcasters). Representatives from PBS, four local TV stations, and two broadcast ownership groups kicked off the first panel, which covered issues as diverse as normalized dialog levels for digital audio, monitoring of DTV signal parameters, and the upcoming "musical chairs" channel moves that many DTV stations must make on or before 2/17/09.
The channel move issue is a big one. While most TV viewers are now aware of the analog shut-down next February, very few know that they may need to re-scan for channels after D-Day on their integrated digital TVs, legacy set-top boxes, or NTIA converter boxes, to make sure they’ve picked up all of their local stations.
And there’s also the issue of antennas. Some editors and writers in the mainstream media remain under the misconception that all digital TV broadcasts will be confined to UHF channels 14 through 51. Wrong! After 2/17/09, about 40 DTV stations will beam signals on low-band VHF channels 2 through 6, while an additional 450 or so will set up shop on high-band VHF channels 7 through 13. The rest (over 1300) will stay put in the UHF band, although some will need to switch channels to stay in the core.
The next panel included representatives from the Consumer Electronics Association, the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, NAB, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, EchoStar (Dish Network), and the Association for Maximum Service Television.
Among the tidbits we heard in this session was the fact that NTIA converter box coupons are being redeemed at about a 50% request rate — in other words, only one out of every two coupons sent to a given household have actually been used. (17 million households requesting more than 33.5 million coupons and redeeming 13.5 million of them.)
Concerns were offered about the inconsistencies in operation from one converter box model to another, particularly when receivable channels were skipped or missed during a scan. An observation was also made that suggestions to re-scan for a given channel often result in confusion between the virtual DTV channel (such as 4.1) and the physical RF channel (48, in this case).
All panelists agreed; more needs to be done with information on antennas and how well given models work for indoor and outdoor reception. Indoor reception was described as problematic, although earlier during the meeting I had connected AutumnWave’s OnAir Solution HDTV-GT digital TV receiver to my laptop, along with a Kowatec CS-2 UHF panel antenna. I had no trouble pulling in and watching NBC affiliate WRC’s digital signal in the NAB conference room — a location earlier described by NAB employees as an RF "dead zone."
The folks from NCTA and EchoStar talked about their effort to ensure customers aren’t mislead into thinking that local TV signals will disappear from their systems. Cable companies have been asked by the FCC to keep local TV stations up as analog channels until 2012, while Dish Network is rolling out local-into-local TV delivery as fast as possible.
With all the participants, it was hard to get into any real detailed discussions, but the consensus is that there are still a few bugs in the system that need to be addressed over the next 2.5 months. New public service announcements prepared by stations, the CEA, and retailers will help drive the message, but it’s expected that TV station switchboards will still be lighting up on February 18 with "help me!" calls.
Oh, and for those of you who haven’t yet done your outdoor TV antenna work yet? Better hop to it — it’s not getting any warmer! (I just re-configured my two roof antennas a week ago.)