April 16, 2009

Digital Transition Chaos 

Digital television is a great idea in theory. The reality is proving messy at best.

In the best-case scenario, you'd simply turn on your new digital TV and it would pull in video more beautiful than a DVD. Since each TV station can now broadcast up to four different channels, you'd have many times more programming choices than before, over-the-air without paying for cable or satellite service. Some people actually have that experience.

For others, just getting a good digital signal is like alchemy. You need an antenna, and sometimes an outdoor antenna, because the signal strength of digital TV is about one-hundredth that of analog. With analog a weak signal might yield a noisy picture, but with digital you get...nothing. Like anything digital, it's either on or off. If you have the wrong antenna, you won't get the new digital VHF channels including WILL's channel 9. So you have to know something about antennas, which most of us probably thought we'd left behind along with 8 track tapes.

But wait, the chaos gets better. If you have cable service, you may no longer even get your favorite local stations at all. That's what happened in the Bloomington, Illinois area, where WILL-TV is no longer available to Comcast cable customers. Or more precisely, WILL-TV is no longer available to Comcast customers who have the analog Comcast cable service. If you have the analog Comcast cable service, do you even know that? Once you ffigure that out, you can upgrade to digital cable for free and get a new digital set-top box. Comcast will keep your monthly bill the same for 12 months, but after that your bill will likely increase. Or you can drop cable and get WILL-TV over-the-air, if you have a TV with a digital tuner, or a digital TV converter box, if you are within range of WILL-TV's digital TV signal. Lots of ifs there.

(Fore more excruciating detail on the Bloomington Comcast situation, see David Thiel's post on TV Worth Blogging.)

Further, the 50 some cable services throughout central Illinois process their signals in different ways. An HD signal on one cable service may look very different from another service. We're getting many reports of out-of-synch audio, and people naturally assume we can do something about it.

Still further, the aspect ratio for HD is 16x9, whereas Standard Definition (SD) is 4x3. What does a 4x3 picture look like on your 16x9 HDTV? Hard to predict, because it depends on both the station producing the signal, and how that signal is processed by your cable service.

Many if not all of these issues will be sorted out over time. We may eventually arrive at the promised land of digital TV actually working. Meanwhile, if you're totally fed up with trying to watch TV I have a suggestion. There's always something good on the web.

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