And the mantra became, “June 12 is the new February 17.” After all the preliminary publicity, it was somewhat annoying to have the conversion from analog to digital TV broadcasting delayed four extra months. But I can see the logic of doing it after the main television viewing season was over… and as it happens, complications along the way have shown that not just viewers but quite a few broadcasters needed the extra time to get their technological ducks in a row.

Offhand, you wouldn’t think I’d be terribly concerned about the switch. I have an HDTV and a DVR with an ATSC (i.e., digital) tuner, so what’s the difference, right?

But as I’ve written before, there are complicating factors… for me and lots of other people. For one thing, people tend to have home entertainment components beyond just the TV itself. In my case, those components include a DVR—which has never had a problem receiving digital programs, but which relies on a program guide, TV Guide OnScreen (TVGOS), that until a few months ago was always transmitted via an analog signal. They also include a DVD recorder with an analog-only tuner. 

Then, of course, even if one is all squared away in one’s main viewing area, with a modern TV with a digital tuner (or for that matter a cable or satellite subscription), quite a few people still have an older TV (or three) around the house still relying on plain old Over-The-Air (OTA) analog broadcasts. That’s true for me as well, since my girlfriend (for reasons utterly beyond my ken) has always liked keeping a spare TV in the bedroom.

As of last year some 17 million U.S. households (out of about 113 million with TVs) subscribed to neither cable nor satellite service, relying on OTA signals. Cable and satellite providers have of course seized on this transition as a marketing opportunity, offering special details on new subscriptions to lure OTA holdouts—and apparently some five million households have taken them up on this over the past year. At the same time, though, the current economic slump has been leading a lot of people to reconsider their discretionary expenses—and with cable/sat prices increasing at well over the rate of inflation in recent years, and the cost of all but the most basic subscription topping three figures per month in many markets (not to mention routine complaints about shoddy customer service), many households have made the opposite move and decided to go back to OTA. 

There are lots and lots of reasons to eschew cable and/or satellite. Personally, I don’t watch a helluva lot of TV, and simply have no desire to pay a monthly fee for the privilege. Unless one is a huge sports fan (sports channels are by far the costliest aspect of most cable/sat packages), most of what’s on cable/sat is readily and economically available via broadcast TV, on DVD, or online. What’s more, I actually like to watch HD on my HDTV. All major network affiliates and many independent stations routinely broadcast new programming in high def (typically 1080i, occasionally 720p—although that’s mostly for sporting events), all viewable for free OTA—but the FCC allows cable/sat providers to bitskim the signal as much as 30% (which they do, to free up bandwidth for additional channels), so if you get your local programming through them you’ll be seeing a lot more digital compression artifacts and general blurriness than exists in the original feed. True, some local broadcasters are “multicasting” (using their digital bandwidth for more than one subchannel) and thus doing some variable bit rate (VBR) signal compression, with video and audio effects that are occasionally noticeable, but most aren’t… and at its worst the result is still better than many cable/sat providers, who tend to reserve full HD for certain premium channels. Many cable/sat subscribers have taken to running a signal combiner from an OTA antenna just to get decent resolution on traditional network programming.

Then there’s the increasing tendency among cable/sat providers not to work or play well with individual customers’ home theater equipment. They want you to use their own set-top boxes, their converters and DVRs, their program guides (rather than standalone devices or TiVos)… and of course to pay additional monthly fees for the privilege.  They deprecate clearQAM and CableCard availability through lack of promotion, poor tech support, and oft-changing channel allocations, driving customers toward their proprietary STBs. And they frequently include DRM flags that prevent third-party devices from recording programs, even ordinary broadcast network content, that law and precedent say home viewers should be able to record freely for time-shifting or archiving.

So:  lots of reasons, technical, financial, and personal, to pay attention to the future of OTA television. Accordingly, I ordered two of the $40 government coupons for Digital Converter Boxes, one to feed the DVD recorder and the other for the legacy set in the bedroom. Most coupon-eligible DCBs are very rudimentary devices, with deliberately limited output options, and aren’t remotely worth their $50-70 price tags… but the availability of the coupons made such prices inevitable, of course. At any rate, after some diligent reading of reviews on AVSForums and elsewhere, I settled on a ChannelMaster CM-7000 (which unlike almost all other models (A) is not made in China, and (B) has S-video output) and a Tivax STB-T8, both of which are better rated than most competitors for reception, picture quality, and ease-of-use.

My biggest issue, however, has remained the TVGOS program guide, without which my DVR is essentially a brick. As noted, it’s traditionally been carried on the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI) portion of a local analog channel. There’s been much technical hoop-jumping in recent months to get the system converted for digital broadcasts, but suffice it to say that coordination between the TVGOS owner, Sony (my DVR maker), and local broadcasters has been less than seamless. (FWIW, it’s a problem that affects a lot of local cable companies, too. Some smaller ones actually use TVGOS itself, but regardless, passing through the signal for those customers with components that use it now requires different technology. Most cable providers do at least pass the signal, but whether they do so in digital or analog form, and how closely their engineers pay attention to technical problems, varies widely from market to market.) After the problems I wrote about six months ago, I faced another round in April, when the listings for upcoming days just started disappearing in huge batches. Sony finally released a long-promised firmware update, which I had to download and install using a USB thumb drive, and it did help the machine lock onto digital clock and listing sources much more quickly than before (but simultaneously invalidated some of the other user-level workarounds I described in December). 

Meanwhile, there was also a glitch with WBBM 2.1 (local CBS), the TVGOS Host Channel in Chicago, not passing the TVGOS signal for several days, but after I contacted a station engineer by e-mail and he reset the encoder it came back again. My DVR had previously been locked onto 0:2-1 (WBBM digital) as the host channel, then it went blank for a while, then locked onto 0:2-0 (WBBM analog) for some inscrutable reason. Still, it kept loading listings just fine…

…but with the machine’s recognized host being analog, I was understandably worried what would happen as of June 12. An added complication was that like many other stations across the country, WBBM was planning not only to drop its analog signal but to switch its actual broadcast frequency (although not its “virtual” channel assignment of 2.1), in this case from 3.0 (in the VHF low-band) to 12.0 (VHF high-band). 

As of Friday, June 12, my DVR had eight full days of listings, as it should. However, I got a “no signal” reading from WBBM (and also from WLS, the local ABC station) until I did a full channel rescan on Saturday morning, June 13. After that all the expected channels were accessible… but the listed HostChan on the DVR’s “hidden” service screens was still 0:2-0, and I was still getting no new listings. This continued through Monday, with the number of days with listings gradually incrementing downward. It’s not like I do a lot of TV watching this time of year, so I decided to be patient.

Come the wee hours Tuesday, the HostChan listing had disappeared—it was blank again, as in April. By Tuesday night, this was still true, but the full eight days of listings had finally repopulated. However, I wasn’t able to confirm that it had actually locked in the HostChan until last night, June 19… so should I ever lose my channel grid for some reason like a power outage (or just, say, move to another city), it looks like it would be a long hard slog to get that grid back.

Meanwhile, that matter of channel reassignments is affecting a whole lot of viewers—not just OTA, but cable/sat subscribers as well—wh0 have had to figure out (at the very least) how to rescan for channels  once or twice, something most people probably haven’t done since their TV (or cable box) was turned on for the first time.

And even then, other issues remain. Reception, for instance. Sitting six miles from the local broadcast towers, all of which are in a SSE direction, I have no problem; in fact, the digital stations are coming in stronger and clearer than they were before. For people further out, though, it’s another story—channels that were fine in analog are subpar now. Then there’s the fact that, although most digital channels are in the UHF band, a minority are still VHF—so people who own UHF-only antennas (not uncommon these days) are out in the cold. (Myself, I use a Terk HDTVi, a very highly rated UHF/VHF antenna. Other strong indoor models include the Winegard SS-3000 and the Radio Shack 15-1892.) Both these problems compounded for poor WLS, which both switched from a UHF to a VHF frequency and had to deal with an FCC-mandated power limit that didn’t reach as far as before. Per the AP, “the largest volume of calls to the FCC on Friday came from the Chicago area, followed by Dallas-Ft. Worth, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore”—largely involving ABC owned-and-operated stations like WLS. 

At the end of the day, all the components in my system still work the way they’re supposed to. And the viewing choices are more than I, personally, will ever be inclined to watch:  all four major network affiliates; five channels of PBS content (from two stations); WGN (also the local CW affiliate); eight other independent channels (from three stations), including a movie channel and a kids’ channel; and “multicasting” options from the network stations including an all-sports channel and a “lifestyle” channel (cooking, etc.)… almost all of it in HD and surround sound, at least during prime time. In addition to these 20 channels of at least theoretically watchable stuff, there are two 24-hour weather/headline channels, three religious channels, and seven assorted foreign-language channels. For all that, I’ll probably still spend more time watching content from NetFlix than anything else.

Honestly, though… I miss the days when a TV was something that you could just bring home, plug in, turn on, and have it work, without having to do hours, days, or weeks of online research to figure out all the variables. Life is too short to spend racing to keep up with new technology just to keep doing the same old thing with it.

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3 Responses to “How to watch television in the digital age”
  1. Andrew says:

    Sure thing television has evolved a lot in the past years … HD and 3D are only some small samples of what awaits us in the future, however I can’t understand why do I still keep my satellite tv when I can have all the channels directly on my laptop, nostalgia perhaps!

  2. […] SmartRemarks » How to watch television in the digital ageSome smaller ones actually use TVGOS itself, but regardless, passing through the signal for those customers with components that use it now requires different technology. Most cable providers do at least pass the signal, … […]

  3. Your nostalgia for those years is more than understandable. If it weren’t for Space(our sci-fi/fantasy channel), CBC Newsworld and a few others on the cable dial, I’d be inclined to dump cable altogether.

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