In the months leading up to June 12th, 2009, the citizens of the United States lived in a hushed panic. The nationwide switch to digital TV, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC), was set to begin that very day, and it was supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity. However, this would come coupled with the loss of their long-time ruler – the beloved, bunny-eared analog antenna that had entertained them for the past 60 years would be dethroned, through no fault of his own.
Many were nervous and skeptical about such a sweeping transition and the new king meant to hold such power; but the FCC assured them that digital TV would deliver clearer pictures, crisper sound, and higher-definition signals into their homes, better than their bunny-earned king ever could. And come June 13th, 2009, many breathed a collective sigh of relief.
(Digitally) Converting the Non-Believers
Countless TV viewers feared that the switch to digital TV would render their old, reliable TV sets obsolete – meaning they’d now have to go out and buy a new one with their own hard-earned money. However, anticipating this transition, the U.S. government required any new televisions produced after March 2007 to have a digital tuner built directly into them, meaning they were already primed for the national switch to digital. Beyond that, the federal government had also issued coupons for purchasing the necessary digital converter boxes that altered the incoming digital signal to allow the older TV sets to still display it. (It would now cost viewers a mere $10-$20 per converter, and it would even clean up their reception, as opposed to killing it, even if it wasn’t able to make their TV shows as clear as high-definition programming.)
And for those folks who were already subscribers of either cable TV or satellite TV, they wouldn’t have to do or change a thing at all, as their TV service providers had already taken care of them long before. Since satellite and cable TV stations don’t use the same frequencies that local broadcasters and their network affiliates do, the analog-to-digital switch didn’t even affect them.
How Digital TV Works, and Why it’s Better than Analog
Nowadays, the antenna is the sole survivor of our analog past. “There was almost a sport in adjusting your antenna on your TV,” said CBS News’ science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg. The family member who could position both ears of the rabbit antenna just right to catch the over-the-air signal would earn the pride of his family, and likely a better seat in front of the TV. But that glory was always short-lived, as a simple change of the channel required a new puppet-mastering of the antennas.
Despite all of the worrying, the differences in analog and digital TV signals are actually rather simple. Switching from an analog to a digital signal let broadcasters offer higher-definition picture, because a digital signal can be compressed far more than an analog signal. This compression enables broadcasting stations to fit more information in the transmission, meaning that viewers are getting a clearer image with digital television than they ever would from an analog signal.
In addition, even though both analog and digital signals get weaker with distance, digital signals don’t degrade in quality. Since digital broadcasting is either off or on, if a digital TV is getting a signal at all, then it is picking up and putting out clear audio and video. On the other hand, an analog signal can waver from factors such as the strength of the signal; the distance from the transmitting tower and the receiving antennas; and the interference caused by any buildings, trees, etc. in the between them.
There’s also one more advantage to having additional the bandwidth available that compression brings. Using digital broadcasting, local stations are now able to offer more programming to their viewers than they could with an analog signal. Through a technology called “multicasting,” or broadcasting several shows within a single frequency, many stations across the United States now use compression to offer sub-stations of high-quality digital TV programming.
Granted, no transition of power ever goes off flawlessly. There were a few hiccups in digital TV’s assuming of analog’s former throne, but, overall, our viewing experience and entertainment kingdom is far improved for it. Even Larry Jones, a connoisseur of all things old TV and the president of the good-ole-days cable TV network TV Land agrees:
“The Golden Age of television is right now. You have never had more selection, better quality, almost anywhere you go. You can have it in your house, you can have it in your car, and you can have it in a lot of different forms. And if we keep down going down this path, then it should be better 2, 5, and 10 years from now. How could I possibly think that this was a bad thing? I mean, technology getting better is a great thing – it gives us more TV to watch!”
All in all, digital TV is a superior TV-watching experience, courtesy of the way its signal has been packaged and shipped to the viewer’s home. Viewers just need to make sure they’ve prepared themselves, and their TV sets, to receive such an advanced signal, so that they may enjoy all the new bounty of entertainment that their digital TV king can now offer them.