Read on for a SPECIAL OFFER on Television(r)!

In the past couple of days I have come to realize that there is a far deeper problem with the effort to spread awareness about the transition to digital television than anything I hinted at in my mock PSA, and it has to do with its seeming irrelevancy to the vast majority of the general public. So, as a public service and in an effort to inform as well as possible, I’m going to spell out for some people in my target audience/age group who may be confused as to exactly what’s going on here:

You know antennas? You know, those things your parents and grandparents used to watch TV on?

(Okay, back in the day your parents had to take a little round base with two metal sticks on it and attach that to the TV instead of a big box or just a cable in the wall, and they would have to jiggle the sticks around in order to get a picture…)

Well, those rabbit-ears are still around, and you can still hook them up to a TV and watch TV on them. Without going through a cable or satellite company. Yes, you can get HD too. There are hundreds of stations across the country, sending out signals for miles around, that you can pick up by sticking an antenna into your TV.

Those ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and so on, channels on your cable lineup? Those “local channels” the cable and satellite companies are always going on about? Not only can you pick them up off of cable or satellite, you can pick them up with an antenna as well.

For free.

Oh, you have to buy the antenna, but you know how the cable and satellite companies whine about how the other keeps jacking up prices? With an antenna, there are no prices to jack up, and there never will unless TV as we know it ceases to exist.

“What about static or screwy pictures?” I hear you ask. “Doesn’t getting an antenna mean having to jiggle it around a lot and taking up yoga to get it to work?” Not once we hit the digital transition. Digital signals are generally stronger than analog signals, so they deal with fewer problems. Even barring that, the way digital signals are sent eliminates such problems as static and ghosts. The worst you’ll get is pixelization and occasional frozen images. And these days, many if not most antennas – and if you live far enough out you’d need this – aren’t of the old-fashioned, indoor kind you set on top of the TV, but instead aren’t much different from satellite dishes in the way they’re installed.

In fact, with digital television you may well get a better picture with a free antenna than you would paying for cable or satellite. Cable or satellite companies, as I touched on in my mock PSA, like to compress TV signals so they can cram as many of them in as possible. With an antenna, you get the signal as the station sent it out originally. Moreover, as it stands the extra channels opened up by transmitting in digital are not subject to the FCC’s “must-carry” rules that mandate cable companies to carry every full-power television signal in the area. But they’re only required to carry a single main channel for each station. All those bonus new channels are considered “subchannels” of the station that was able to clear space for them and runs them – and while your cable or satellite company might carry them, they’re not required to, and even if they do carry them they might charge you extra for a “digital” package to get them.

So, with an antenna and digital television you get all your local channels, in HD if you like, as clear or even clearer than you’d get with cable or satellite, plus several more channels you might not get at all with cable or satellite. (Not just subchannels, but – assuming you’re still able to get analog signals – low power stations.) All for free!


It’s been in place at least since digital television was codified in the late 90s, so how on Earth could you never have heard of this great deal before? Why isn’t this the message of the DTV transition campaign? The answer is, as it often is in these sort of situations: Who has an interest in telling you?

Well, cable and satellite companies sure as hell won’t tell you about it. They’re sure as hell not going to lose your business. The FCC is supposed to be completely impartial, not advocating some thing or another, but in practice they tend to stay on the side of their corporate patrons (or groups complaining about seeing a boob for .02 seconds). Antenna makers might have an interest in getting you to buy their product, but it’s not likely to make them much money, and most of the largest ones tend to be more general electronics companies, especially electronics retailers who also deal with cable or satellite companies in contracts far more lucrative than they make with antennas. (That sentence is purely speculative, but still, I imagine antenna makers might not have a lot of resources to spread the word.)

You might think TV stations and networks might have an interest in losing the competition of cable channels and getting a broader audience for their subchannels, but truth is, they profit off your patronage of cable and satellite as well. Though broadcast television keeps whining about having an unfair disadvantage against cable channels that reap the benefits of cable companies’ subscriber fees, for years TV stations have managed to wring money out of cable and satellite providers by charging them “retransmission consent fees” to show their signals (depending on where you live, you may have experienced losing a station in a retransmission-consent dispute) – even though the must-carry rules say they’re supposed to show them anyway. All that really means, since only the stations can invoke the must-carry rules, is that the cable companies have no real leverage to bring down the price or charge money of their own.

Put up an antenna, give up your subscriber fee, and TV goes back to the pre-retransmission-consent days, where they’re back to advertising as their sole means of getting your money.

So getting you to buy an antenna isn’t in the cable companies’ interest. It’s not in the regulator’s interest. It’s not in the TV stations’ interest.

And quite frankly, I’m not sure it’s even in the consumers’ interest.

On cable, Monday Night Football routinely gets ratings over 10 – meaning over ten percent of all households are watching MNF alone at any given time. It’s rare for even the highest-rated non-MNF cable shows to top a five, but cable channels are able to serve a wide variety of audiences. SpongeBob SquarePants is able to approach four percent of all households with an audience that’s largely children; with over a hundred channels on almost every cable system, and 24 hours in every day and seven days a week, chances are most people with cable watch some number of cable programs each week somewhere on their lineup. I know I don’t know how I’d live without ESPN, C-SPAN, cable news, and on and on and on it goes.

Lose cable or satellite, and you lose all of that. I’d wager that at least a quarter of homes with cable are not willing to give it up without a fight. Yes, you would get a bank of digital subchannels to replace it, but because of the technical limitations involved, you’d only get one, maybe two a station – and they’re probably not in HD, which would only support one additional channel at the most and would still push the limits of the technology. Most markets are lucky to have seven general purpose entertainment stations that can be lined up with the Big Six networks plus an independent – nowhere near enough to replace the vast universe of cable. And take a look at the subchannels that are out there. Here in Seattle, according to Wikipedia, we have the following subchannels on our local broadcast stations: NBC’s weather channel on the NBC station, “RTN” on the CBS station, and another weather channel on the Fox station. And a whole bunch of junk on the PBS, TBN, and ION stations but no one watches the main incarnations of those channels anyway.

In a catch-22, though, it’s possible that if the subchannels had a wider audience they would have programming more worthy of your time and even take something away from cable. But because they don’t have the programming, there’s little reason for you or me to make the switch compared to the value of cable. Certainly I would never consider ditching my cable to watch everything on an antenna only. But if you don’t live so far out in the sticks that you can’t get a signal, you’re willing to sacrifice what you get on cable, and you can put up an appropriately-sized antenna to get what you do want to watch (the larger antennas aren’t terribly appropriate for apartment buildings), then go ahead and stick it to the man. Go for it 1950s-style. You may find you’re really going for it 2050s-style.

I’ll admit it’s probably not the best ad I could have come up with. But it’s close. Suggest improvements in the comments.

Editor’s Note: On the day this post goes up, we are exactly six months away from the transition to digital television in the United States, and the outreach effort has been, to put it simply, a fiasco. Even its successes have been failures because it has ended up spreading some inaccuracies. As such, I have taken it upon myself to create a DTV PSA designed to alleviate the misconceptions and spread as much information, good and bad, as possible, in a short, simple, concise form. I timed myself reading it and came out to about three minutes.

(An image appears of a grandfather clock.)

Voiceover: Remember when you went from having to memorize a bunch of rules to figure out what the time was…

(An image appears of a modern digital alarm clock.)

Voiceover: …to simply being able to read the numbers off the clock?

(An image appears of someone surrounded by paper doing a lot of writing.)

Voiceover: Remember when you went from having to do your finances by hand…

(An image appears of someone working on an Excel spreadsheet.)

Voiceover: …to having a computer doing all the calculations for you?

(An image appears of a newspaper hitting a doorstep.)

Voiceover: Remember when your parents only had a few choices for learning about what was going on in the outside world?

(A screenshot of Wikipedia slides in on top of the last image. Other screenshots from blogs, informational web sites, and the like slide in on top of it.)

Voiceover: Now there are literally dozens of options and more coming every day.

(A generic landscape appears.)

Voiceover: On February 17, 2009, TV will make that move, and it will change forever.

(An image fades in of a television broadcasting tower.)

Voiceover: On that day, all full-power television stations in the United States are required to broadcast exclusively in digital television.

(The image now fades to a television set showing one of those stock images used to show how bright, crisp and clear the image is. As the voiceover continues, it shows a NASCAR race and a mosaic of a wide variety of programming.)

Voiceover: It will bring (usually) better picture quality, better sound, and even entire channels added to the current landscape.

(Fade to a diagram of two broadcast towers, highly lit up, with rings radiating from them. The television set continues to flash images in the lower right.)

Voiceover: And it’s actually a very simple switch. Most TV stations are already broadcasting in digital at full strength alongside their existing analog signals; some have already stopped broadcasting in analog.

(A calendar showing the date February 17 appears. One of the towers stops radiating rings and its lights go out. The television set continues flashing images.)

Voiceover: On February 17, the remaining stations will simply shut off their analog signals and will broadcast exclusively in digital from then on. That’s it. Most viewers probably won’t notice the difference, assuming everything goes as planned, and won’t have to do anything.

(An HDTV appears with a NO symbol over it, fading into a chart showing HD -> DTV, and DTV with two arrows leading to HD and SD.)

Voiceover: You don’t need an HD set. HDTV implies DTV, but DTV does not imply HDTV.

(A new diagram appears. On the left side, the words “CABLE OR SATELLITE” and below it, “DON’T WORRY!” On the right side, on the same line as “CABLE OR SATELLITE”, read the words “ANTENNA TV”.)

Voiceover: If you subscribe to cable or satellite, you won’t need to do anything, even if you don’t have a converter box; you’ll get exactly what you get now and might not even notice that anything changed.

(A TV fades in over the diagram, showing the same mosaic of images shown earlier, just barely slower and not as clear.)

Voiceover: Your cable operator or satellite provider will handle everything for you, although you should keep in mind that your cable operator or satellite provider is not required to bring you all the new channels opened up by digital, and may condense the digital signal so you won’t get the clearest possible picture and sound.

(The diagram fades back into focus. On the “ANTENNA TV” side of the diagram, it is cut in half lengthwise. On the top half fades in an image of an HD set; on the bottom half, an old-fashioned SD set. Below the HD set fade in the words “DON’T WORRY!” The SD set zooms into focus when the voiceover starts “even if it’s still SD…”)

Voiceover: If you get your TV through an antenna, you still don’t need to do anything if your TV is an HDTV, and even if it’s still SD you may not need to do anything.

(Image of someone flipping through a TV manual and finding the SPECIFICATIONS page.)

Voiceover: Check the specifications of your TV; they should be in your TV’s manual or on the box it came in.

(A line from the SPECIFICATIONS page zooms in, with “TV standard” in the left column and “NTSC” or “ATSC” in the right column.)

Voiceover: If it says it uses the “ATSC” standard, you’re all set.

(The letters “NTSC” fade in in big white type as the rest of the screen goes dark.)

Voiceover: If it doesn’t, and it only uses the “NTSC” standard, you won’t need to get a new TV or antenna or anything.

(Image of someone setting a digital converter on top of his TV.)

Voiceover: All you need is a digital converter, which you can get at a discount with a coupon from the federal government.

(Diagram of a broadcasting tower slowly moving away from a television set. As it moves away, the image on the TV becomes pixelated and eventually goes dark. The antenna starts to grow in size, and as it does the image comes back pixelated and then clear.)

Voiceover: Note that although any antenna will work with both digital and analog signals, signals further away from where you live will require a more robust antenna, even if you receive the analog signal fine now.

(A camera, a broadcasting tower next to the camera, and a TV appear. The camera shows a bunch of images, and the number 2 is on top of the tower. The TV is off. The 2 slowly changes to 19. The TV turns on, clearly showing the number 2, and shows the same images as the camera.)

Voiceover: Also, although you won’t notice any changes in the channel numbers on your TV, many stations will be broadcasting from a different channel from their analog signals.

(“14-51” appears in white letters on a mostly black background. With each conjunction, the screen changes, first displaying a UHF-only antenna near “14-51”, then to “2-13” near a VHF-compatible antenna.)

Voiceover: Most of these will be in the UHF band and you can get them using a UHF-only antenna, but some stations will broadcast in VHF.

(Appropriate screenshots from the website appear.)

Voiceover: To find out if you need a more robust antenna and if you can get away with making it UHF-only, log on to (or whatever the site of the organization producing the PSA is). There, you can also find out if there are any low-power stations near you that will not be transitioning to digital.

Wild and Crazy Speculation on the Future of the Olympics on TV in the US

ESPN may be gunning for NBC’s Olympics rights starting in 2014.

The sports blogosphere generally hates ESPN and so what reaction I’ve seen has been negative. But on the plus side, between ABC Sp… er, ESPN on ABC, ESPN1, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and maybe ABC Family and ESPNU (not to mention ESPN Deportes), they have no lack of platforms to put events on (which I’m not as certain of with CBS or Fox), and they might have more by 2014. And you know they’ll stream lots of events on ESPN360.

If they do get it, though… well, you see what happened when NBC overextended for Olympics rights – it led to the NFL and NBA leaving and killed NBC Sports until last year. If ESPN isn’t careful getting the Olympics would be the peak – and would start a long march downhill that could really help places like Versus. (Hear that, NBA on ESPN/ABC bashers? There might be a pretty good chance you’ll get what you want in 2016!)

NBC Extends Wimbledon Contract

NBC has signed a “long term extention” with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for coverage of the Championships, Wimbledon.

More is hopefully forthcoming, as linked article does not provide exact duration.

UPDATE: The “long term deal” is for only four years. ESPN is also close to a deal that could include the Tennis Channel, according to sources.

NBA Re-ups with ABC, ESPN, TNT

This is a little late; blame’s tardiness putting up the story, but the NBA will stay on ABC, ESPN, and TNT through 2016, well after just about all other leagues will have to renew their agreements. So far as people watching TV will be able to tell, it will be status quo, unless they happen to watch NBA TV try to become as close to the NFL Network as the NBA is to the NFL.

TNT will show 52 regular season games a year and up to that number of playoff games. ABC will show a minimum of 15 regular-season and the same number of playoff games, including the Finals; the ESPN family will show up to 75 regular season games and 29 playoff games.

More info at the linked article.

15 playoff games mean even with a 7-game Finals, ABC will have to show 8 playoff games, more games than Finals games. This represents a larger playoff commitment on the part of both ABC and ESPN. This and more analysis on Sports Media Watch.

NBC probably had the most successful run of any NBA TV partner, but this deal will give ABC rights for longer than NBC. Many NBA fans on the Internet have been critical of the NBA on ABC – and with gimmicks like bringing in the Pussycat Dolls to do songs for the opener, ABC makes an easy target – but the NBA and others have stated repeatedly that NBC, CBS, and Fox did not make a sufficient offer to compete, and it’s absurd to blame the NBA’s broadcast ratings woes to the presentation of games on ABC. If the games are good, people will turn in in spite of the presentation.

The most pivotal day in "Versus" history?

Versus will televise Big 12 and Pac-10 football games as part of a new agreement with FSN, a rehash of FSN’s prior deal with TBS. I’d be more impressed if FSN hadn’t already let Pac-10 games go to ESPN and made another agreement with ESPN for Big 12 games.

This is great news for Versus and terrible news for fans of those conferences who have longed for them to get off FSN. TBS to Versus is a big step down. On the other hand, while Versus isn’t likely to get The Game That Will Determine The National Championship (between ABC and FSN), this is exactly what Versus needs to do to establish its bona fides as a major sports power before the Big Three contracts come up for renewal again in the mid-2010’s. Versus’ limited distribution and the fact that it counted on major sports to establish its reputation, instead of making sure they had one going in, helped kill their shots at NFL and MLB rights (though Versus’ best shot at the mighty NFL, especially considering their distribution, was probably always the package the NFL relegated to the NFL Network for reasons not concerning the individual drawbacks of any network).

Getting the sort of sports that characterized the early days of ESPN and ESPN2 is also a must. Versus has already gotten a head start on that with NLL and MISL coverage, and dipped its toe into Arena Football coverage last season. Jumping into more mid-major sports, like MLS and the WNBA, would seem to be a logical next step, but MLS and AFL rights are locked up into the next decade, and WNBA (and NBA) rights are pretty much too far into negotiations at this point, with the pens practically already sitting by the contract.

The Big 12 has already re-upped with ABC and FSN, a deal that starts in 2008. Versus might be able to interject itself in SEC negotiations, which are up for renegotiation soon for a new deal starting 2009. Both football and basketball are shown on CBS and ESPN, but ESPN’s coverage of the SEC is rather limited, with lesser games (including the basketball semifinals, a bit of notoriety shared by no other Big Six conference) relegated to regional syndication.

Versus probably overestimated the cache of the NHL today in trying to line up deals for better sports. Now they have to hope that even mid-level Big 12 and Pac-10 games will draw enough eyeballs to stop itself from being a joke for any league over the NHL line. I can’t exactly say the battle of Iowa is a good sign of what’s to come, but at least now they might edge just a little bit higher.