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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Digital TV Sucks: Let's Watch YouTube

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.


  1. In defense of Digital Air - we recently picked up an "amplified/multi-directional" antenna.

    It works wonderfully. Because we're in S.F., we couldn't simultaneously get KTTW and Everything Else. (One is north of town, the rest south, or something like that.) Now we get everything clearly - including MN PBS and several other regional NBC/CBS/ABC channels. The only problem: it's huge. Like, it's nearly the centerpiece of our room.

    But regarding your other complaints - yeah. I'd take mildly static-y analog over silencing/cutting out digital any day.

    (Though as a family that went from digital cable to digital air, the HD channels are CLEARER and BETTER over the air. No joke. Just don't move in front of the antenna.)

  2. An Anon suggests a big outdoor antenna, maybe the cost of six months of cable for years of free TV. Great. More equipment, more expense, just to get what I was getting just fine without extra expense 12 months ago. That still doesn't look like technological progress to me.

  3. CAH:

    The real goal of digital TV is to reduce the spectrum used by television stations. This can't be emphasized enough. The spectrum they are using is ridiculously valuable.

    There will certainly be technological kinks that need to be worked out until digital receivers give you a perfect picture all of the time. But the trillions of dollars worth of spectrum that analog TV was wasting can now be developed. This will far outweigh the temporary pain of this transition.

    Additionally, here in SD we really don't use all of our spectrum so the downside of analog broadcast isn't pronounced. In spectrum dense areas this change will be hugely helpful.

  4. O.K., Tony, I think I can accept my loss of signal for the greater good of freeing up spectrum for other uses (such as... wireless mobile broadband?). I can probably convince my three-year-old of that as well... as long as we can find penguins online.



  6. Cory--I am singing from the same songbook in terms the downsides of digital TV. Here in DC I can still pick up analog until June and I won't change over until I have to. Bandwidth arguments aside, it's awful hard for me not to see this in terms of my own narrow self-interest. It's virtually impossible to watch televised sports on over the air digital as it stands now. But I'm afraid Congressional delaying is over and the few of us that still use over the air channels are just going to have to suck it up.

    Brett Hoffman

  7. Great penguins, Tony! Young Miss K will approve!

  8. Someone else recommends an amplifier, $30–$70... further proving the point that this technology is a more expensive step backward from what we had.

  9. I feel your pain Cory. Actually, my parents feel it more than I do. After fighting it for a couple weeks, they went with a cheap Dish Network package that includes local channels. They actually had DirecTV before, but that didn't include local channels. In the end, they are paying less now, but have less channels.

    However I don't know if I would say that the increase in technology shouldn't come at a cost. At a time I could call local from my land phone for free. Now, technology has caused me to loss that land phone for a cell phone, at a high cost. I had no internet, then dial-up internet, then cable internet, each at a greater cost.

    Maybe the question should be as technology rises and cost rises, at what point will it equal out and the consumer won't pay increased fees for increased technology?

  10. I agree, Brett, that new tech may result in higher costs. However, that higher cost should bring higher functionality. I'd also like it not to force us to give up our earlier technology if we find that earlier technology fully meets our needs. TV is hardly a need, but consider: a year ago, if I wanted access to basic broadcast TV for info and entertainment, I needed two devices: a standard TV and a pair of rabbit ears (the latter requiring no power supply). Now, for the same basic access, I need an additional piece of equipment (the converter box) that plugs in and requires a separate remote (batteries), which alone brings me lower quality, less reliable service. I regain the old reliability only if I buy yet another piece of equipment, a larger antenna (and that's still a maybe).

    The cell phones you mention create a similar problem. They offer a remarkable new functionality (contact anywhere, anytime! miraculous by the standards of 1994!). But they are becoming a necessity, something we are expected to have. The cost of daily living is thus increasing, with cell phones bringing us one more bill that we didn't have to budget for just 15 years ago.

  11. The DTV switch is not about giving you a better viewing experience.

    It is about the government reducing the bandwidth for broadcast TV, freeing up spectrum.

    They'll try to tell you that will be used by public service (police, fire, etc) but I've yet to see any development there.

    What it's really about is the $19 billion the government got when it auctioned the spectrum off.

    It should also be noted as far as reception problems go, there's little your local station can do. Chances are it's at full power.

    But as we found when cell phones went from analog to digital, either you get a signal or you don't.

    At the station I work for, we've found it to be trouble for those in rural areas an hour or more away from the transmitters. They just can't get us good now, except with a rooftop antenna. The government should be subsidizing those, if anything!

  12. I'm having the same problems with digital TV as you are having.

    I can't get a number of station I used to be able to get with analog. for example I used to get 2 PBS stations and now I can only get one. I used to get a my network station (it used to be WB before they merged with UPN) but now I can't get that station.

    besides my local ABC, CBS and NBC I was able to get versions of those stations from other places (I in the Detroit area and used to get stations form Columbus, OH and Mid Michigan)

    the stations I can get tend to break up or lose signals completely.

    and the fact that broadcasters can have multiple channels is a good ideal but no one really uses it.

    though PBS does a nice job with it create station and a channel of kids programming.

    nbc as the weather and old reruns I don't care about and abc as a stations of bad movies.

    Fox, CBS and CW have nothing.


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