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Television Technology Enters New Era


In February of 2009 all television stations in the United States are required to convert to digital transmission. This move will bring an end to traditional analog television that has been the standard for decades. The television industry is optimistic the costly transition will be successful.

For the past several years, the television industry in the United States has been facing the looming date of February 17, 2009. On that date, less than three years from now, all TV stations are to shut off their analog transmitters and hand the licenses for them back to the government.

Extended from the original date by six years, the broadcasting industry is optimistic this change is going well. Many stations, especially in bigger metropolitan areas, will also upgrade to High Definition television, commonly known as HDTV.

At a recent convention in Las Vegas of the National Association of Broadcasters, products featuring HDTV technology played an important role.

Jonathan Adelstein is a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the regulatory authority that governs all broadcasting and telecommunications in the United States.

Mr. Adelstein believes the conversion over to digital is going well.

"There's all kinds of new content that's coming on," he said. "Consumers are buying new HDTV sets in droves; it's going to be the biggest new consumer product on the consumer electronics industry shelves by 2009. I think it's moving forward. We need to do more to educate the public to be prepared for it. But, I think consumers are going to find all kinds of great new content. High definition, better sound quality, new offerings that are going to make it worthwhile for them to make the switch. They are already voting with their wallets by purchasing all kinds of new digital television sets and taking advantage of these new digital offerings."

One of the biggest supporters of the conversion from analog to digital is the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Broadcasters. Spokesperson Dennis Wharton says that only 200 American TV stations have yet to make the conversion.

"There are about 1,700 TV stations in the United States," he noted. "Over 1,500 have already made the digital television transition. Which means they are either simulcasting a digital signal along with their analog signal, but most of them are doing High Definition television during a lot of the day parts. Most of prime time, for example, is in High Definition television; all of the major sporting events are in High Definition television, late night shows are all in High Definition television. I'm not going to be Pollyannaish and not admit that there are some challenges still to go, but considering where we were and where we are now, things are going great."

Mr. Wharton says the biggest problem has been the cost, especially to stations that serve smaller population areas. He estimates a basic conversion from traditional analog to what is called SDTV (Standard Definition digital television) costs a station at least $2 million. To go all HDTV with good equipment can push that price tag up to $10 million.

Veteran producer Randall Dark has been working in HDTV for years. A longtime advocate of the technology, he says the price has dropped rapidly in the last few months.

He says this price drop is allowing stations to produce their local news, usually the most expensive part of a local station's operations, in HDTV.

Mr. Dark feels this development will be the impetus for stations to go all digital HDTV, which is broadcast in widescreen, or a 16:9 aspect ratio.

"It's a very competitive marketplace for stations in every major city," said Mr. Dark. "They always say, they got the first Doppler [radar], they got the first helicopter, and they're always looking for that competitive edge. Now, all of a sudden you've got consumers everywhere that got these [HD]TVs and they 're not going to watch a four by three newscast on a 16:9 television. And they' re not going to watch in digital low resolution when they can watch it digital High Definition."

Mr. Dark says the impending release of HD DVDs and BlueRay technology will also advance digital HDTV.

Both these type of technologies will allow consumers to play DVDs in High Definition. Current units can only double the lines of resolution of non-HD DVDs. Along with falling production costs, Mr. Dark says this will encourage companies to start advertising in HDTV, as they will not want to showcase their products in lower resolution.

He also says these advances will allow stores to properly display HDTV and encourage more people to buy higher end television sets. This conversion will also make traditional television sets, in use for decades, useless.

The NAB's Dennis Wharton says that by the time February 17, 2009 arrives, many people would have replaced their traditional TV sets with news sets anyway. With most of the current sets on store shelves having built-in digital decoders, he feels consumers will embrace the new technology.

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