Saturday, May 17, 2008

the digital stone-age

RANT WARNING: This entire post is just me complaining. It has nothing useful to do with anything. Read at your own risk.

So, today we got a digital receiver for our TV. We have continued to watch only broadcast TV, mostly because I'm too cheap and too anti-TV to invest the money in cable or satellite. We augment the broadcast offerings with a subscription to Netflix, which includes a generous selection of TV series on disc. We also have a lot of movies and TV series available for free through the local library. To my thinking, this is more than sufficient.

Well, as hopefully everyone knows by now, in about nine months everything will change. Congress has mandated that all broadcast TV convert to digital signals, so frequencies are freed up for other uses. (Apparently, digital signals are more compact.) The newly available frequencies will be used for "public safety communications" and commercial wireless. Needless to say, they are listed in that order on the FCC's Web site. We're told that benefits will include improved clarity and expanded variety due to the opportunity for sub-channels. Our local PBS station, for instance, has already developed multiple digital sub-channels with greater programming specialization.

So what's the catch? Well, like most technological "progress," the first thing you'll notice is widespread obsolescence. There are plenty of new TVs out there with the capability to receive a digital signal, and of course those who already pay hundreds of dollars a year for cable or satellite can pretty much ignore the change. But for the countless older TVs being used to watch broadcast TV, there are only two options--buy a new one, or buy a separate digital receiver.

Not to worry--your helpful government is providing $40 coupons--two per household upon request--for the external receivers. Right now, you can easily find a receiver priced at $50, so $10 out of pocket isn't too bad. Given the benefits, what's to complain about?

Plenty. Yes, a good digital signal gives a cleaner output than a comparable analog signal. But what happens with the signal is less than perfect? With analog, you might get a fuzzy image that makes it a little hard to read print on the screen. You might even get some static in the audio that obscures quiet dialog. But you can still watch the show. With digital, you get severe pixelation, frozen picture and sound, and complete loss of the signal. Watching a show like Lost, where every detail counts, you might experience some frustration with a weak analog signal where dark scenes are a bit hard to follow. But try missing a piece of dialog because your signal faded a bit. Think, watching a scratched DVD where you finally have to give up and skip to the next scene. That's worse than just about anything you'd get with analog. Well, with the possible exception of a badly positioned antenna while taping your favorite show and finding out the static was so bad you can't hear anything. But that brings us to the next problem.

Get ready to junk your VCR. Of course, if you've already migrated to DVR, you might not have much to worry about. (I wouldn't know.) And I guess there are some newer VCR/DVD combos (you can't buy just a VCR anymore) with built-in digital receivers. But most of the stand-alone VCRs out there will become practically useless for recording programs. For starters, you can hook your receiver to your VCR (supposedly--it didn't seem to work right when I tried it), but say goodbye to taping one show while watching another. The VCR must stay parked on channel 3, while the receiver controls the actual channel. There is a work-around--buy two receivers, so you can have one on your TV and one on your VCR. I'm not sure if that means you also need two antennas, but either way, you've just used up your allotment of coupons.

Say goodbye as well to easily programmable taping of shows you can't be there to watch. You can still use your VCR's program feature to set the time to record, but remember--you can only record channel 3. The receiver needs to be set to the right channel ahead of time; although you might program the VCR to tape your favorite show every Wednesday evening, you'll need to verify every Wednesday morning or afternoon that the channel is set properly. And forget taping two shows on two different channels in the same evening if you can't be there to change the channel.

If none of that is bad enough, you will probably lose channels that you can get now. We live between Washington and Baltimore, where it is sometimes possible to get channels from both cities. Tests so far have shown that the fuzzy stations you might have got before could become non-existent. Hopefully there will be some improvement on this count. Apparently many broadcasters are waiting for the official switchover to beef up the power on their digital signals. Right now, we can't get either of the two Baltimore PBS stations, but according to Wikipedia the signal strength is pretty minimal. It's disappointing, because Ian watches a lot of PBS as it is, and we were looking forward to the better niche programming of their digital offerings. Without any signal at all, it's a deal-breaker for now. We've boxed up the receiver until February, in hopes that things will improve. For now, we'll stick with our trusty analog.

It's sad, really. Analog TV still works fine. Old VCRs still serve the purposes for which they were created. The only problem is that, in less than a year, there will be no signal to receive. I'm reminded of Ralph Nader's point that the airwaves belong to us. Somewhere along the line, we (through our elected representatives) sold them off to big corporations. Don't hold your breath for some renegade broadcaster to keep sending out analog signals for all the freedom-loving fuddy-duddies who want to receive them.

Is it a conspiracy to force more of us into buying cable or satellite service? Or is it just simple crowding of free broadcast to make way for more important things? Either way, the outcome seems to be more expensive for anyone who hasn't already chosen to pay for TV (beyond what we already pay to the manipulative advertisers). Well, there's one other group that won't be paying more--anyone who has chosen or chooses now to opt out. Your analog equipment will continue to work just fine. If you can't get a signal, so what? You can still watch VHS tapes, DVDs--heck, you can even watch Beta if that's your thing. Many of the networks are now providing current episodes online for free. If you don't mind being a year or so behind, you can watch a favorite series on video. Or you can find something more productive to do with your time than sit in front of a TV.

I don't plan to challenge anyone's right to complain about this scam. But I do offer this encouragement: You are not a slave. You still can choose. You don't have to play their game. You have nine months to think about it.


Jim N. said...

I love it when you get fuddy-duddy-ish!

Trevor said...

Yeah, it's great material for a blog. Unfortunately, I can't say, with Wendell Berry, that I write my rantings with a pencil and let my wife type them so that I never have to touch a computer.

Roland said...

I'm going through the digital transition right now. My old VCR suddenly stopped recording earlier this month, and there is no way to replace it with a similar VCR. Also, my 23-year-old 13" TV has gotten to the point where I need to let it warm up for 10 minutes before the picture will stop rolling before I can watch it.

So I got a nice little 19" HDTV at Target. I also bought a powered antenna, which makes a huge difference in the quality of my reception. When I forget to turn it on, I can't get any PBS stations. But when it's on I get clear reception on all the digital channels of both WETA and MPT. So I would recommend a powered antenna as a possible solution to your reception difficulties.

I hoped I could get by with a DVD/VCR without a tuner, figuring I had just bought a digital tuner in the new TV. But you can't output the digital signal from the TV to a VCR - talk about scams! Until my new DVD/VCR arrives, I'm watching a lot of stuff on-line.

Trevor said...

I should have mentioned, we already have a powered antenna. We also have a concrete-constructed building that gets notoriously bad reception (TV and cell phone). So even with the better antenna, we watch a lot of fuzzy analog TV.

Caspian Rex said...

Man, Trevor, we are going through the exact same thing! We haven't had anything but rabbit ears for TV, ever since living in an apartment years ago where cable was "included" in the rent. The stations we got with that bargain cable were no better than the free TV through the airwaves. So I finally got around to getting the converter box a couple weeks ago, and I'm experiencing the same things you write about. When the picture is good, it's quite a bit better than analog, but often the PBS channel gets a weak signal, and my toddler's favorite shows are a mess! And of course, the guy at Radio Shack tried to sell me a thirty dollar hi-quality antenna that would get me something like 100 channels, and I said no way! So we do the Netflix thing and the library thing, and hope our TV does OK, since it's getting pretty old. And technology marches on...