The Sky Is Falling

Will the digital switchover lead to breakdown or bonanza?

Conspiracy theorists out there might imagine the CEO of an electronic retailer in a mansion somewhere rubbing his hands together and cooing "Excellent," after a thunder clap à la Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. So far though, the switch to digital broadcast is shaping up to be a cipher.

I recently received the following e-mail from one of my best TV industry sources: "Joe - just read this article about the new A/D converter boxes for the upcoming death of analog TV," it read, referring me to one of several online articles circulating that day about the availability of federally subsidized vouchers for purchasing set-top boxes capable of converting digital broadcast spectrum signals for analog TV sets receiving a terrestrial broadcast signal. "You may want to go to the government Web site (if you haven't already) and read up on it, or, better yet, get your coupons for two boxes (I did)."

A couple of things surprised me about the message. First, I was surprised that this digital-savvy media executive might require a digital converter box at all. The second was that I had just received a similar message from an equally savvy TV industry executive, who had also jumped on the offer for the government-supplied coupons.

This surprised me, because I had no idea that in early 2007 elite media industry executives might still be receiving analog broadcast signals. But then, so did I. Don't get me wrong, I have other TV sets in my household. I even have two hooked up to DIRECTV. But I also have what I call my canary-in-the-coal-mine set with a plain old terrestrial antenna to get whatever local market broadcast signals it's capable of receiving.

I call it my "canary" set, because I keep it around to see when its reception will actually die. By next February, it, like millions of other TV sets hooked up to terrestrial broadcast antennae, will be attached to a shiny new gizmo that converts the broadcast industry's new digital spectrum into an analog signal. But I won't actually know that until a year from now, when the government-mandated conversion occurs. Until then, I have to rely on government communications and media coverage.

If this seems reminiscent to some of how you might have felt reading Y2K coverage on Jan. 1, 1999, the analogy is pretty apt. Y2K, in case you don't remember, was an unanticipated phenomenon that occurred on Jan. 1, 2000, when all of he computers programmed with two-digit, 20th-century code were supposed to go haywire when they could not figure out that the century had turned.

Looking back on Y2K now may seem akin to the unfounded hysteria Orson Wells' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast sparked, but according to experts, the threat was a little more real than the possibility of a Martian invasion. It was thwarted, of course, by a heroic expenditure - billions of dollars in Y2K-related technology spending helped society avert the kind of computer crashes some had predicted would mark an end to civilization as we know it.

Now some industry insiders believe digital TV transition has the potential to be every bit as disruptive for the television world, unless a significant portion of the nearly 14 million households who currently receive their TV programming via an analog broadcast signal are prepared. Based on the federal government's initial outreach, how prepared we are remains to be seen. For one thing, the way I found out about the converter box vouchers was from an article that pointed me to If these households are still using rabbit ears to get their television signals, I wonder how many of them have access to the Internet? Even if they do, how adept are they at downloading and printing forms?

Needless to say, there are ways for even those households to receive information and apply for the coupons via phone or snail mail, but coupons are one thing. Successfully finding and purchasing a digital converter box may be another. The early word is that they're not expected to be in stock until late February or early March, and even then, it's unclear how well stocked retailers may be, or how well informed their sales personnel will be.

Among the most interesting discussions taking place at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a panel of execs from big retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City who predicted there would be mayhem surrounding the supply, distribution and sale of digital converter boxes. Or it could just be that the consumer electronics marketers are taking a page out of the marketing strategy of their pre-Y2K IT brethren. A little panic can go a long way toward drumming up record sales.

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