Depending on the outcome of discussions in Congress, television as we know it may end at exactly midnight Dec. 31, 2006.
That’s the date Congress targeted, a decade ago, for the end of analog television broadcasting and a full cutover to a digital format.
If enforced, that means that overnight, somewhere around 70 million television sets now connected to rabbit ears or roof-top antennas will suddenly and forever go blank, unless their owners purchase a special converter box. Back when the legislation was written, New Year’s Eve 2006 probably looked as safely distant as the dark side of the moon. But now that date is right around the corner and Congress and the FCC are struggling mightily to figure out what to do.
Congress, however, left itself a loophole in the 1996 legislation, and could actually let the cut-off date slide by. But powerful lobbyists now are pressing legislators to set a “date certain” for the analog lights-out. The debate over when to throw the switch is a strange brew of big money, high technology, homeland security and a single, unanswerable question: just how angry are the couch potatoes going to be? It’s also a textbook example of why the future almost never happens as fast as technologists promise.
It all started back in the Eighties, when the Japanese shocked American consumer electronics companies with trade-show displays of high definition television sets that delivered razor-sharp images and stunning audio. Everyone from Congress to the Wall Street Journal raised outcries: America’s favorite technology was being taken over by the then-fearsome Japan Inc. As a result, a group of American companies formed the “Grand Alliance” that leapfrogged the Japanese technology by inventing digital HDTV. Thus, early on, HDTV invoked not just pretty pictures, but national pride and economic development. (Ironically, Zenith, the most all-American commercial participant in the Grand Alliance, is now South Korean-owned.)
One drawback to the U.S. version of HDTV was that to make it work, all broadcast television (not just high-definition) would have to convert to digital, meaning that every American television set manufactured since 1946 would be rendered obsolete. To ease the transition, Congress generously gave all television broadcasters additional channel space so that they could keep broadcasting their analog signals while they installed and launched their digital channels. The deal was that they would give up their old channels when the transition was done. That part worked: Over 1400 broadcasters now transmit in digital as well as analog, reaching 99 percent of the U.S. television market.
During the same period consumers were supposed to buy digital television receivers. That part didn’t work.