The New, Improved Boob Tube

About a year ago, a colleague and I were discussing the cost of cable television.  Already knowing that I was probably on the lay-off list, I told her I had cancelled all but my basic cable, and that was costing a pretty $100 per month.  She said that she could still get over-the-air broadcasts.  I told her not to count on it for too long; all analog (free over-the-air broadcasts) were going to be phased out by the end of 2012. The ultimate dead line has been extended to September 2015.  But for northern New Jersey, the plug has just been pulled.  “Al Gore said so,” I warned.  When the vice presidential FOI (Friend of the Internet) tells you about a big technological change, believe it.  Especially when the government is involved in pulling the plug.

Some young friends on Facebook expressed their dismay.  “We’ve gone blue!” they cried, referring to the blank screens on their analog televisions. An IT friend warned them but they hadn’t believed him.  When I told him Al Gore had announced this circumstance years ago, back when they were all in college and not paying attention, he didn’t believe me.  It wasn’t the Democrats, he said; it was the cable conglomerates.

Back when Al Gore announced that analog television broadcasts would be phased out by 2009, to be replaced by HDTV, no one knew what Gore was talking about and since the economy was doing pretty darned well, thanks to the Republican Congress, no one was really worried about it.

Who wouldn’t prefer cable over the standard broadcast, HDTVs to analog television sets (whatever HDTV was)?  Who wouldn’t want a better picture? But then, the economy tanked, even while cable bills kept rising, some as high as $200 per month (mine was $150).  People began to see cable television for what it was:  an expensive luxury.  Especially if you’re unemployed.

Only since the FCC ruled that analog television would be phased out, giving more spectrum space to cable providers and telecommunications and satellite companies, those who still had analog television and could depend upon the free over-the-air broadcasts were just plain out of luck.  Certainly, the big cable conglomerates didn’t care.  Their attitude was that HDTV would be subsidized for the poor – meaning the taxpayers would pay for it.  The conglomerates didn’t much care where the money came from to pay the cable bill. Anyone paying the cable bill was more profitable than free, over-the-air broadcast viewers.

In 1990, the FCC decided a HDTV digital signal could be simultaneously broadcasted until analog signals were phased out. In order to receive this signal, people would need to buy either a digital TV set or a converter such as a set-top box (ka-ching!). A digital TV tuner card could work for their computer. Eventually, four proposals seemed serious, but no one was the winner. A suggestion was made to form a “Grand Alliance” between these contenders: MIT, Philips, AT&T, General Instrument, Zenith Sarnoff and Thomson. After much discussion in 1996, the FCC adopted the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) Digital Television Standard based on an MPEG-2 compression scheme proposed by the “Grand Alliance” displacing the NTSc (National Television Systems Committee). Also in 1996, the Telecommunications Act was passed, allowing telecommunications and satellite systems to offer television (and radio) broadcasting. Then in 1997 the FCC allocated pure digital spectrum, (not analog or a blend,) to broadcasters. In addition they decided to require broadcasters to transmit digital programming on a graduated schedule by 2006, (which was extended.)

Here’s the technical explanation for this “transformation”:  The digital broadcast video (and audio) signals are encoded as a series of pulses where the pulse height and distribution define the signal. Rather than being directly related to the voltage applied to the electron guns of analog TVs, digital to analog converters (DACs) are needed to convert the signal pulses into the proper voltage levels. A digital TV signal gets decoded into 3 simultaneous voltage levels, one each for the 3 electron guns of the digital TV. The voltages are applied in the same manner as for analog TV, only the method of developing the voltages is different. In terms of scanning, even digital TV is an analog process, since the scanning signals are analog (at least on the standard CRT picture tube; this is not the case with LCD displays.)

The digital broadcast video (and audio) signals are encoded as a series of pulses where the pulse height and distribution define the signal. Rather than being directly related to the voltage applied to the electron guns of analog TVs, digital to analog converters (DACs) are needed to convert the signal pulses into the proper voltage levels. A digital TV signal gets decoded into 3 simultaneous voltage levels, one each for the 3 electron guns of the digital TV. The voltages are applied in the same manner as for analog TV, only the method of developing the voltages is different. In terms of scanning, even digital TV is an analog process, since the scanning signals are analog (at least on the standard CRT picture tube; this is not the case with LCD displays.)

During the 1990s, there were a number of important related developments:
(1) The cable industry became a powerhouse across the country. (2) The PC revolution gave the television and film producing industry software tools to digitally edit and manage their work, especially those from Macromedia, Avid and Adobe. (3) The CDROM industry became a leader in the development of interactive multimedia applications. (4) Satellite companies, eager to get a bigger piece of the market, introduced smaller 18 inch to a yard in diameter residential satellite dishes for homes (Direct Broadcast Satellite {DBS}). These dishes receive transmissions of hundreds of channels of digitally encoded NTSC broadcast signals to digital-to-analog set-top boxes nationally and internationally. Typically they offer more interactive television than their cable counterparts. (5) A mix of analog and digital consumer electronics devices also appeared such as CD-ROMs, VCRs, camcorders, laser disks, and digital video disks. (6) The success of the Internet seriously affected the television industry. Among other things, a lot of TV viewers, and thus advertising revenues related to them, were lost to folks who were spending time concentrating on the Internet. Something had to be done.
Fully digital television requires much more technically advanced equipment than does analog TV. Digital television receivers rely on advanced electronic circuitry to decode the digital signals in real time. Unlike the backward compatibility between color and black and white analog sets of yesteryear, fully digital broadcasts cannot be displayed on analog equipment without additional components.
There are a number of differences between digital and analog television, several are noted below:
1) The DTV hardware reads or turns the broadcast signal (depending on the hardware involved) into bits and bytes, which is the language of computers. This makes computers and HDTVs compatible. As the primary language (code) for the World Wide Web is HTML, which is a computer code turned into bits and bytes, this makes for a much more efficient way to experience and interact with the Internet.
2) Digital TV signals are much less susceptible to interference. With MPEG compression (and other) technologies, an error-free picture is possible, even if minor signal errors are present. With an analog broadcast signal, minor signal errors can cause minor picture degradation (ghosting etc.). As interference becomes worse, the picture becomes worse. With a digital signal, because of the way the error correction works, the picture will still look perfect until the threshold FEC signal to noise ratio is reached. Ratios below the threshold lead to an unacceptable picture (which is called catastrophic degradation.)
3) The use of compression (which DTV does) means that a standard 6 MHz TV channel bandwidth can carry around 4 or 5 separate digital TV channels (versus one with the analog signal) and have the same good resolution.
4) DTV can offer at least twice the picture resolution of straight analog TVs, this making possible a cinema-quality image as well as sound quality like that of a compact disc.
5) Signals for adjacent digital TV channels do not interfere with each other like those in analog systems. Therefore more channels can be occupied.
6) Unlike analog systems, the resolution of the digital TV broadcast can be varied.
7) Because digital signals can be compressed when they’re sent to the DTV, the viewer can receive a great many more channels. This allows for the development of channels with content that only a select group of viewers would be interested in. With some sort of back channel the viewer can interact with others more freely.
8) With some sort of return path (back channel) the viewer can interact with others more freely.

On June 13, 2009, FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein made this statement on the digital television transition:

We are ushering in the end of analog broadcasting and the beginning of the digital age.  Things went about as smoothly as we could have hoped.  It’s looking more like Y2K than the Bay of Pigs.  Certainly, if we had not delayed and prepared, it might have been a disaster.  But with the additional time, resources and actual planning, we put things in order just in time.

We cannot become complacent or rest on our laurels.  Over the next few days, weeks and perhaps months, we need to keep our efforts in overdrive, continuing to conduct a national field, phone and Internet operation.  We need to“search and rescue” viewers who are still unprepared.  And we need to remind viewers to rescan their TVs and boxes, and adjust their antennas.

The Commission has truly conducted an unprecedented effort to prepare millions of viewers for the transition of 974 TV stations throughout the country.  To be sure, some viewers are still unprepared, unaware, or – in some instances – frustrated.  But the Commission’s outreach effort has been vast, comprehensive and effective, reaching from every public housing unit in urban areas and to every farm in rural parts of America.  We have also focused on the groups that are particularly affected by the transition. As a result, we have cut the number of completely unprepared households in half since Feb. 17th.

The Commission’s activities have included deploying legions of trained and dedicated FCC employees to nearly every television market in the country, operating hundreds community-based walk-in centers, responding – yesterday alone – to a record number of more than 300,000 consumer calls in a host of different languages, and installing  thousands of converter boxes in unprepared homes.  Our website,, has also been very successful in providing consumers with the information they need to prepare for the transition, allowing them to apply for converter box coupons and getting antenna and reception information.  During the month of May, there were more than 2.5 million pages viewed on the website. Yesterday, we exceeded that number, topping 3.1 million pages viewed.

 So with the continued hard work of FCC staff in the field and at the Commission, along with our governmental and private partners, especially broadcasters, cable and satellite television providers, consumer electronic retailers and all of our vendors and volunteers, we will continue to respond to every single concern that is brought our attention.  We will also continue to reach out to those viewers who have not yet made the transition to digital television.                                                                              

           Our work is far from done, but we are off to an impressive start. 

According to a memo written by the Federal Communications Commission (in WordPerfect which had to converted to ASCII Text format, both ancient), dated Dec. 26, 1996 on the subject of Advanced Television Systems and Their Impact Upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service:     

“This proceeding began in 1987, when we issued our first inquiry into the potential for advanced television (‘ATV’) services.  Subsequently, over the course of the past decade, we have issued a series of Notices concerning ATV and, based upon the comments received, have made a number of decisions.  In the fall of 1987, a few months after initiating this rulemaking proceeding, we were allocated  “Committee” or “ACATS”) to for television broadcasting, but that existing broadcasters should be permitted to upgrade their transmission technology so long as the public remains served throughout any transition period.  We later decided “that an ATV system that transmits the increased established the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (“Advisory provide recommendations concerning technical, economic and public policy issues associated with the introduction of ATV service).  Early in the process we decided that no additional spectrum would information of an ATV signal in a separate 6 MHz channel independent from an existing NTSC channel will allow for ATV introduction in the most non-disruptive and efficient manner.”  As the proceeding progressed, all-digital advanced television systems were developed and we began to refer to advanced television as digital television (“DTV”) in recognition that, with the development of the technology, it was decided any ATV system was benefit significantly from further development and none would be recommended over the certain to be digital.   In February of 1993, the Advisory Committee reported that a digital HDTV system was achievable, but that all four competing digital systems then under consideration would others at that time.  In May of 1993, seven companies and institutions that had been proponents of the four tested digital ATV systems, joined together in a “Grand Alliance” to develop a final digital ATV system for the standard.  Over the next two-and-a-half years, that system was developed, extensively tested, and is documented in the ATSC DTV Standard.  On November 28, 1995, the Advisory Committee voted to recommend the

Commission's adoption of the ATSC DTV Standard.  [Pardon the poor wording, but there’s no typo here; this is the way the memo’s text actually reads.  This from our Federal Communications Commission!]

 “We conclude that adoption of the DTV Standard will serve the public interest. It will bring many benefits to American consumers. By providing a requisite level of certainty to broadcasters, equipment manufacturers and consumers, the benefits of digital broadcasting will be realized more rapidly. The public will receive more choices in video programming with dramatically better visual and aural resolution. In addition, new and innovative services can be made available by the data transmission capabilities of the DTV Standard. Further, the DTV Standard will permit interoperability with computers and encourage innovation and competition.”

The Digital Television Standard
       30.  Adoption of the Digital Standard.  In the Fifth Further Notice, we listed four objectives regarding the authorization and implementation of a DTV standard:  1) to ensure that all affected parties have sufficient confidence and certainty in order to promote the smooth introduction of a free and universally available digital broadcast television service; 2) to increase the availability of new products and services to consumers through the introduction of digital broadcasting; 3) to ensure that our rules encourage technological innovation and competition; and 4) to minimize regulation and assure that any regulations we do adopt remain in effect no longer than necessary.  In addition to these objectives, we stated our intentions to consider how adoption of the DTV Standard would affect other goals enumerated in this proceeding including facilitating the provision of digital video services, spurring a rapid conversion from NTSC to DTV, and recovering the analog broadcast spectrum after conversion.  
 According to an article in The Cato Journal:
 Congress enacted the "Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992'' over the veto of President George Bush.  This act purports "to provide increased consumer protection and to promote increased competition in the cable television and related markets.'' We here analyze some important economic implications of the act. Our analysis of cable-television history (especially the brief period of deregulation, 1984-92) and of the contents and amendments of the new act indicate that the achievement of public-interest goals is most unlikely.  The Cable Act of 1992 admits self-interested outsiders (mainly, broadcasters in competition with cable operators, along with municipal tax collectors) to the profits generated by the supply of cable TV services. Further, the act will redistribute the profits of local cable companies by changing property-rights assignments without fostering new competition. Whether the nominal price of some homogeneous unit of cable services rises or falls, we argue that service quality (including the introduction of new technologies and products) will decline over time.

Following a review of the period of cable deregulation, this article treats two major aspects of the 1992 Cable Act. These are (1) the reinstitution of rate regulation at the municipal level of government under the aegis of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), [2] and (2) the restrictions imposed on ownership forms and on the ability of cable operators to choose which programs to carry. While other aspects of the act are important, a study of these two issues is central to the economic consequences of cable reregulation.

Several regulatory regimes have existed over the brief history of cable television in the United States (Posner 1972, Williamson 1976). A consensus between over-the-air broadcasters, the cable industry, and other interested parties was reached in 1972 under President Richard Nixon. This consensus set rules regulating the new and increasing cable competition facing broadcasters (Besen 1974). The goal then was to protect markets of the television networks and local broadcasters. Part of this protection included cable rate regulations.

There is some (admittedly anecdotal) evidence concerning the price-quality tradeoff from the period of cable deregulation. Basic cable penetration increased significantly over the period of deregulation. During the six years prior to deregulation, the number of homes passed by cable systems–the number of potential subscribers to cable–doubled from 34.9 million in 1980 to 69.4 million in 1986. But cable penetration–the percentage of homes passed that actually subscribed to cable–increased by only four percent, from 55.0 percent to 57.2 percent. In fact, in the three years prior to deregulation, penetration increased by only 1.8 percent. In the first three years afterderegulation, in contrast, basic penetration increased by approximately 7 percent. By 1991, penetration exceeded 61 percent of the homes passed by cable systems

Increased cable penetration over this period of deregulation is consistent with the fact that rate deregulation was accompanied by product improvements making cable services, even at higher prices, more attractive to consumers. Increased penetration is consistent with the fact that cable operators improved quality in the kind of price-quality interplay described in the theory outlined above. Although evidence of increased penetration hardly proves that cable rates became perfectly competitive during the deregulatory period, it does suggest that deregulated rates were closer to competitive levels than were rates allowed by municipal price regulators. As argued above, all companies–whether operating under competitive or monopolistic conditions–will choose to improve their products if consumers are willing to pay for such improvements.

Field testing of HDTV at 199 sites in the United States was completed Aug. 14, 1994.  The first public HDTV broadcast in the United States occurred on July 23, 1996 when the Raleigh, N.C.   television station WRAL-HD began broadcasting from the existing tower of WRAL-TV south-east of Raleigh, winning a race to be first with the HD Model Station in Washington, D.C., which began broadcasting July 31, 1996 with the call sign WHD-TV, based out of the facilities of NBC-owned owned and operated station WRC-TV. The American Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) HDTV system had its public launch on Oct. 29, 1998, during the live coverage of astronaut John Glenn’s return mission to space on board the Space Shuttle Discovery. The signal was transmitted coast-to-coast, and was seen by the public in science centers, and other public theaters specially equipped to receive and display the broadcast.

While the technological advances of cable television, satellite communications, and HDTV has increased our choices in program and the quality of the service, it has also increased our cost of living.  It has also given the government a chance to show how big it is by providing what was once a luxury service to the poor and insuring that they must be provided this service by making it impossible to receive a television signal in any other manner other than through the cable.  They only have two choices:  listen to the radio and go without the basic cable service (which includes news and weather information) or have the government pay for it.

I don’t miss anything that was on cable television.  I’m perfectly happy with Netflix.  But I still must pay for the basic cable service and the HDTV box. I was ahead of my time on the HDTV. I suffered the misfortune of watching my old, analog television set literally blow up one night.   We couldn’t really find a substitute analog TV, although there were flatscreen analogs.

“Don’t bother with that,” Big Brother said, as we were shopping for a new TV. “Al Gore said the other night that in three years (2009), analog broadcasts are going to be phased out. By 2012, you’ll have to have an HDTV, whether you want one or not.  You’ll just wind up buying another television set, or a converter box of some kind, because the HD signal is different from the analog.”

This was definitely a bipartisan effort towards Progressivism; there’s no doubt of that.  The government gets its fees.  The cable companies get loads of money.  And the American public gets Snooki, Desperate Housewives, Glee, and massive cable bills.




Published in: on September 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm  Comments (2)  

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