I believe in the power of science and technology to make our lives better. (I saw Star Trek last night, loved it—expect a full review by the weekend!) However, technology's power to bring progress is not unlimited, as demonstrated by digital television, the biggest tech boondoggle of this decade.
Here at Lake Herman, I used to receive SDPB, KELO, and KSFY reliably. KDLT came in with some rabbit-ear wiggling. On lucky Sundays we could pick up KTTW and watch new Simpsons.
Then came digital TV, which is supposed to be spectacularly better than analog broadcast signals. If we lived in a giant dome, stopped all air and land travel, and turned off all other electronic devices, I bet it would be.
But in the real world, digital TV sucks. Sure, we get more channels now: 3 from SDPB and 2 from KELO come in pretty well... usually. But we catch only glimpses of KDLT's two channels. KSFY and KTTW have never registered on our taxpayer-subsidized converter box (memo to KTTW: better order more hamsters for the wheel-generator).
Digital signals wax and wane with environmental conditions, just as analog signals do, but the performance differences in digital signals are far more drastic. Sunday night, when it was calm and cool outside, we got to watch the Giro d'Italia whizz around Milan on KDLT's second channel, 46-2. The picture was regularly dotted with pixellation, and the sound cut out regularly... and that's the best 46-2 signal we've ever received. But when the high heat rolled in Monday, poof! Zilch from KDLT. SDPB has also disappeared, all three channels. No Sesame Street today, and someone in our house could use some Elmo! Even KELO this week produces only unwatchable snatches of signal.
Whatever causes the problem, it's the unwatchability of a degraded digital signal that drives me nuts. Get goofy weather, run a hair dryer, answer the cordless phone, and an analog signal would go fuzzy, but you could still hear the audio and follow the action through even mild static. But interfere with a digital signal, and its toast. It pixellates, it freezes, it drops the audio completely. If I bring my laptop to the couch to do some work while the little one watches Nature, the computer produces just enough interference to destroy what should be a quiet, pleasurable evening of watching penguins or hippos.
And just try fixing the reception by fiddling with your antenna. Swing the old rabbit ears around, and you would immediately see the effect on an analog signal. The digital receiver takes its time deciding whether it can make the new antenna position work, so you're stuck nudging the ears, waiting, nudging again, waiting....
Even I, for all my promotion of higher culture, still want my Letterman, my Don and Angela, my SNL, maybe even just some sports background noise every now and then. And on those occasions when I want it, I want it now. Ideally, digital TV should bring me higher quality and less time. Practically, I'd settle for one or the other. Currently, digital TV is bringing me neither. The signal is less reliable, lower quality, and I spend more time pushing buttons, twiddling the antenna, and waiting for the signal to lock in.
Am I the only person having these problems? If not, it would appear we can count on digital TV bringing the death of broadcast TV as we know it. If we really want to see video, we'll get a DVD or watch Hulu.com or YouTube. Instead of just telling people about the funny thing we saw on TV last night, we'll e-mail our friends the link to the online video, or embed the video with our commentary on our blogs. If we need a weather report, we'll tune the radio to KJAM or WNAX and pull radar from the Web.
Digital TV is supposed to be a revolution. It certainly is: a continuation of the Internet revolution, and a termination of one more form of old-style media.
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