Yesterday was the day that virtually all television stations in the United States were supposed to be operating their digital facilities at substantially full power.  For years, many stations have been operating their digital stations with temporary facilities at low power while waiting for the digital television audience to grow.  Now, except for those license who have filed with the FCC a showing that financial or technical reasons justify their failure to be at full power, television stations should be reaching virtually their entire audience with a digital signal.  This is one of the mileposts in the transition of the nation’s over-the-air television industry to digital operations, a process that Congress has mandated be complete by February 2009 – less than three years from now.

On our Digital Media Conference panel the week before last, one of the topics that we discussed was whether the process would really be complete by the February 2009 deadline.  After turning on the Wimbledon women’s finals this morning, only to find that it was not being broadcast in HDTV, I really wonder if the transition can possibly be completed in less than three years.  There is a real chicken and egg issue at play.  Sports is clearly one of the big draws of digital television, as the HDTV coverage of a football or basketball is such an impressive sight that, once you get used to watching it in HDTV, you don’t want to go back to a standard definition viewing experience.  But clearly, the expense and complication of broadcasting in HDTV, and the still small audience watching in HDTV, keep many programs in standard definition formats.  Yet those of us lucky enough to be able to afford an HDTV television set remain frustrated when we encounter television programs not taking advantage of the new formats.  Here in DC only one of the local newscasts in this major market is being done in HDTV.  Little or no news or reality  programming produced by the networks is yet in HDTV.  If HDTV is not available, what will push the public rush to buy new sets to be ready for the February 2009 conversion deadline?

Perhaps the ability of stations to multicast – to broadcast multiple streams of programming – will encourage the purchase of the new sets.  Yet most consumers don’t know of the existence of the multiple over-the-air streams provided by some television stations, and the publicity has been scant except in a few markets where stations have been pushing their alternative or supplemental offerings.  In my experience, much of the public doesn’t really even understand the concept of digital television or HDTV.  Congress has appropriated a few million dollars to promote the digital transition, but that is a drop in the bucket.  The FCC has a very interesting digital television website, with a countdown to the end of the transition, yet is that really enough to push the consumer to convert to digital?

Many have assumed that because something like 85% of all TV households receive their television signal from cable or satellite providers, the transition will be relatively painless.  After all, these wired signals will keep right on working the same way that they do now even after the over-the-air stations have stopped broadcasting their analog signals.  But I have never seen a figure showing the number of households that have at least one over-the-air television.  While many homes may have their primary television hooked up to cable or satellite, how many homes have that $69 10 inch TV set in their kitchen to watch the morning talk shows during breakfast, or in the workshop to watch the game while puttering around, or in the bedroom to watch Leno or Letterman’s monologue before going to bed?  These are the sets most likely to be affected by the digital conversion, and the ones least likely to be "converted" without the availability of a really cheap converter box.  Will Congress want to take the wrath of all those whose second or third TVs have become obsolete by that February 2009 deadline, as well as that 15% of households without any wired access?

Clearly, there are competing interests, as there are wireless carriers salivating at the possibility of using reclaimed broadcast spectrum, and the government wants the money from the auctions that will award those parts of that spectrum which have not already been sold off.  And certainly these companies will offer new and exciting services.  But will the efforts of the industry and the government to educate the public be successful, or will we need to assess the impact of the disenfranchisement of those not ready to convert to the digital television age at some point before the 2009 deadline?  We have less than 3 short years to find out.