What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came?

Has anybody noticed that TV is no longer an over-the-air medium? Mostly it's over-the-wire, meaning cable. Some of it is over glass, meaning fiber optics. And some of it is over satellite, which is Xtreme Air — bouncing off a satellite 24,000 miles over the equator. But both fiber and satellite are just other ways of delivering TV by cable. What connects to the back of your set is still co-ax. And what you watch are a line-up of "channels", which are nothing more than names and numbers given to branded data sources.

I realized how much TV had become Something Else when we visited an old friend in Pasadena last week. In the guest bedroom is an old black-and-white portable television. Our twelve-year-old kid became fascinated with it, but had trouble making it work. "What are these for?" he asked. They were VHF and UHF dials. The former had clicks that went from 2 to 13, with a U that activated the other dial, which had clicks that went from 14 to 83. "Why?" he asked.


None of our friend's TVs are ready for the DTV transition. She's up for getting a new TV after the transition happens, at last, in June; but she figures she'll wait until all the signals are gone. If she even bothers. She has never had cable, and television has never been a Big Thing in her life. In other words, when The End comes, she'll chuck all her old TVs and not watch anything.

We got rid of cable TV here a few weeks back. We just didn't watch enough to make it worth our while. Verizon FiOS had excellent service, and a helluva deal. By the time they got to the end of their "customer retention" script, we were getting the DTV/set-top-box for $0 and the full raft of HD channels (more than 110) for $47.99. But we dumped the service anyway, along with the landline telephone, sticking with Verizon's 20Mb symmetrical fiber optic connection to the Net, which is far more valuable to us.

Last night I had beer with a friend who kept his Comcast Internet service while dropping Comcast's cable TV connection. Same reason: he just didn't watch it enough to make paying worthwhile. Plus, he could get enough of what he wanted from "Hulu and the rest of it" on the Net.

Last year I hung out with Mark Anthony Hand in London, and reported on his media choices in a What Are They Using feature in last December's Linux Journal. Sitting in a pub, he showed me how he grabs BBC shows on a MythTV setup and watches them later on a Nokia 770 hand-held, both running on Linux. No telly involved. (Bruce Childers also had a nice feature on hacking more current Nokia tablets, in the same issue.)

Just today I witnessed another indicator of sorts. Absent from the bottom of the FM band is an audio source that has been radiating across southern New England since 1963: the sound of Channel 6 television from Providence, Rhode Island. Channel 6, in the old VHF band, is right below the FM dial, with audio on 87.75MHz. For a number of weeks Channel 6, WLNE-TV, has been looping audio (and video too, I assume) telling viewers to make the conversion to digital reception. Now that audio is gone, and the old Channel 6 transmitter site is silent as well.

Last May I put up a photo essay exploring WLNE's doomed transmitter site, which now hosts one small FM station (only half way up the 1000-foot tower), and serves otherwise only as useless overhead to the station, not to mention a persistent hazard both to aviation and bird migration.

Then last July I asked here about what happens after TV's mainframe era ends. At the time the execution date was February 17, 2009. That was delayed until June, which appears to be a hard deadline. Of special interest to me are big old VHF stations like WLNE, which lose large areas of coverage when they move both to new towers and to new channels on the UHF band. Here are FCC maps (all .pdfs) that compare coverage before and after the DTV conversion.

Here's the map for WLNE, now broadcasting its digital signal on Channel 49.

Note all the gains in green, up toward Boston's urban and suburban areas. I live somewhere near the "B" in "Boston". With a directional antenna pointed at Channel 49 on the third floor of my house, I can't get the station on a USB tuner plugged into a laptop. The signal ain't there. And if it ain't here, it for sure ain't in Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Montauk, or New London either. Those were all served well by the old Channel 6, but now show up on the new map as areas with lost coverage. The old Channel 6 did quite well, actually. I could get it here with rabbit ears, even though the old transmitter was much farther away. I could get it for the simple reason that waves on VHF travels farther across terrain than waves on UHF. As with lower-frequency sounds, they carry better around objects and corners, and through walls.

But here's my point: none of this matters, because almost nobody is watching over-the-air TV any more. I've looked for signs of complaint from viewers who have lost WLNE's over-the-air signal. Can't find any. (Maybe Sheila Lennon knows of some. Hi, Sheila!) Over-the-air TV is a legacy anachronism, and a check-box requirement for the TV stations themselves. They have to put something out on the air, as an obligation to the FCC. But nearly all viewers are watching on cable or satellite. Or punching out. Meaning they're not watching TV stations at all. They're watching Hulu, Boxee, Miro, YouTube, or something they got through BitTorrent.

So, what is TV, really, if it isn't an over-the-air thing? Why, other than legacy model emulation, do we even bother with "channels" on a digital medium (which cable TV is now, mostly) that's also a World of Ends in which any end can deliver just about anything to any other end?

The end game here, I believe, is a new Hollywood that isn't in Hollywood. It's everywhere anybody can produce and distribute shows and movies — or anything — with, and to, anybody. Sure, the ratio of gunk to goodness will be high. But that doesn't mean there won't be good stuff.

If you have a camcorder capable of recording at a 1080i resolution (which most do, now), you already own a source of picture quality that's less compressed — and therefore better — than what you get from cable or sattelite TV, where carriers would rather offer more "HD" channels than better-looking ones, which is why they compress images to the quality of .jpgs saved at "lowest" settings: text with jaggies, plaid skies, blocky gradients and other visual annoyances. Home-grown "TV" is going to look much better, quickly. At some point the difference becomes a serious liability for TV stations and networks.

Then what?

I think we're on our own. That means, we create our own solutions, our own infrastructures — starting with the Net and moving out from there. The smart cable and phone companies will get in front of that development, and support customer DIY and DIT (do it together) any way they can.

Not that they will, but we can always hope.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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عالمك's picture

thanks to you

Some stations provide

rtre's picture

Some stations provide additional streams. Even though I subscribe to satelitte, I use the OTA tuner provided by the DVR box. Our local PBS affiliate provides three data streams, of which only one is privided by the satellitte دردشه
"Local channels." They provide additional regional programming besides their primary network feed

I watch OTA TV. I haven't

Adam C's picture

I watch OTA TV. I haven't had cable in like 3 years. Sure, there's a few things I miss, but most can be had online. And for the rest, I have a friend with a DVR. Honestly, though, despite working in TV, I barely watch it, so it was easy to justify dropping cable.


It does seem that many

goodvin's picture

It does seem that many non-technical users are still using OTA TV, and will move to ATSC boxes / TVs with much benenfit. I'd like to see statistics on it.

OTA near Chicago

Kubuntu_usr_near_Chicago's picture

I got to using the DTV boxes last fall.

I can get stations from Chicago and also from Rockford.

So far, counting the side-channels, I get 38 stations. Not bad than around 14 on analog.HDTV is right there.

What I noticed though, is since the extension was announced, a few stations that came in good now are not available. I think they cut back power until the deadline is up.

A station here that has been notoriously poor is WBBM channel 2 (CBS). It is at the low end of the frequency band. Even with a 25 foot tower, and hi-gain amplifier was poor reception in analog. Now, in digital ( unless the power comes up later) is worse than analog. Digital is all or nothing, so programs like 60 Minutes, CSI, and the like can't be viewed. I read elsewhere that most of the other stations moved up into the UHF band. WBBM did not.

Will have an alternative for this with a Rockford station when it comes fully online.

With the economy the way it is, FREE TV is a blessing.

OTA is *not* dead

Anonymous's picture

I only view OTA television programming. Now, I live in the LA area, and get pretty good reception (DTV and analog) for the major networks, 4 PBS stations, and a number of local stations. If I wanted to, I could have cable (choosing from at least 2 providers), but I'm not willing to pay to watch something I get for free. If cable TV had no commercials, I could *maybe* see paying - otherwise, you would have to a really stupid sheep to pay for television, unless you lived in an area with few OTA broadcasters.

What do you miss?

Doc Searls's picture

With cable you pay for access to more channels than you get over the air. That's the basic deal.

Most television isn't happening over the air. It's happening on cable.

But then, most video isn't television at all. The percentage of all video viewing that isn't television is going up rapidly. So, if you watch video on the Net, and OTA, all you're missing is the cable delta: channels that are neither OTA nor on the Net. That's a deal I'm glad to make, fwiw.

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

Netflix etc...

Anonymous's picture

I don't watch OTA TV,. I don't have cable or satellite. and I only occasionally watch some online. I get the movies and TV shows I want from Netflix, or buy the DVDs. LOOK MA, NO COMMERCIALS! Well, there are previews, but on most DVDs you can either bypass or fast forward through them. I don't miss cable TV at all.

The movement to the web is definitely started, but will

Anonymous's picture

It does seem that many non-technical users are still using OTA TV, and will move to ATSC boxes / TVs with much benenfit. I'd like to see statistics on it.

Many other non-technical users are still using cable and satellite, which, as you describe, are "old-fashioned" fixed stream solutions regardless of whether they come in DTV, HD, or over fiber-optics. Too restrictive and expensive. With media coverage of the web opportunities, many are indeed beginning to move to WWW content as you discuss, and the cable/satellite/phone lines will be getting cut in lieu of fast web services as a one-stop solution for all home communications (except cell phone wireless, of course, for mobility). It's fascinating to see TV (eg. CBS) advertising access to their content on their web sites. Sure, not all the content is on the WWW yet, and there'll be some resistance by some to the move, but it'll happen. Efforts to resist are like holding back the ocean...

I set up a MythTV system connected to a 1080 HDTV in the living room with wifi internet streaming of content via FireFox (Hulu, etc.) and Boxee. The whole system was <$500 with plenty of processing, storage, and graphics card power for smooth 1080 HD. And no monthly fees...ever. And full control over the DVR content means unlimited storage, transcoding, and archiving to DVD/Blu-ray - much better than any DVR deal from the cable/satellite providers. These solutions will only get easier and cheaper, and the marketing potential for boxed solutions is clear.

Yes, you'll have to pay for internet access, but that's a service, like SAAS, which you can't expect for free. Yet?

What a bunch of bull.

Anonymous's picture

What a bunch of bull. Millions still watch over the air TV. Perhaps if you looked beyond your inner circle of technogeeks you'd realize that there is a whole other world out there.

Get off that "nobody watches OTA TV anymore" bandwagon. And with the launch of mobile DTV later this year, that OTA signal will be coming to cell phones and other mobile devices.

BTW, "Hulu" "Joost" and all those other online TV sites you guys promote are not "free" TV like OTA. Someone has to pay for the broadband.

DTV Transition

Anonymous's picture

I only watch over the air transmissions, I refuse to pay the minimum amounts the cable companies require. I am already watching DTV with an atsc tuner built into the DVD player/recorder.

Not only bad, but expensive

Doc Searls's picture

Agreed, Mark. The badness of TV comes home to me when I'm on the road. I turn on the TV and suffer a few minutes of "news" on CNN or the utter crap that comprised most "entertainment" (other than sports, which is the only thing left that I like), and I'm appalled. The question isn't just how long people will tolerate it, but how long the networks can continue to afford it. Sitcoms like Seinfeld will never happen again, because they're too expensive. But even "reality" shows cost a lot of money to put out. As advertising revenue drops, and viewership drops, what's left?

Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal

There are still advantages for OTA

Jim W.'s picture

Some stations provide additional streams. Even though I subscribe to satelitte, I use the OTA tuner provided by the DVR box. Our local PBS affiliate provides three data streams, of which only one is privided by the satellitte "Local channels." They provide additional regional programming besides their primary network feed.


Alan UK's picture

Whilst I don't watch TV over the net, I do listen to a hell of a lot of music via internet radio. We have pretty good broadcast radio here in the UK. BBC Radio 2 is my favourite. But with my pc connected through my hi-fi and an almost unlimited choice of musical genres, this has become the way ahead for me.

still using over-the air and will continue to do so

Jack's picture

My family is still getting TV over the air. Granted, we don't watch a lot of broadcast television anymore, but we still have one or two favorites we enjoy watching.

Living in the heart of St. Louis, our DSL connection was only pulling in a meager 384Kbps, so streaming video wasn't much an option, unless we wanted to let things buffer for half an hour or more; definitely not worth it. Our phone line was rerouted this week to the new digital network in our neighborhood and we can now watch streaming video. I don't see it changing our TV viewing habits much. We're too cheap to spring for cable TV, and not likely to create a MythTV type solution either.

There ARE more important things than TV.

coverter boxes don't help the issue either

Mark_thetrigeek's picture

I live about 45mins south of Boston and get about 20+ channels with our new converter box. But we still don't get 1080i or p so what's the point. It's nice to have Nova and such for us adults and Elmo and Word World for the kids but the rest of it is just junk. We haven't had cable for well over 3years now and don't see a reason to go back.

Eventually I'll build a mythbox to grab things like Heroes and Big Bang theory but I really need more to justify the effort and cost. At this point there is none. Once you start using Miro (or something like it) you realize how bad network TV really is.

Great write up.