What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came?

by Doc Searls

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.

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