James Steinbach of Wisconsin Public Television offers a blunt assessment of the upcoming transition to digital broadcasting: "It's confusing."
Like other television broadcasters, Steinbach is preparing for Feb. 17, 2009, when most stations will stop transmitting analog signals. (There is an exemption for low-power broadcasters, a category that includes some religious stations.)
In some Wisconsin counties, says Steinbach, about 40% of residents receive analog signals, via antennas. These are the same kinds of signals your Aunt Gertrude watched in 1948, when Milton Berle was yukking it up on Texaco Star Theater.
Analog will be replaced by digital broadcasts, whose pristine quality may surprise viewers who use antennas to watch television, and are therefore accustomed to ghosts and snow. Viewers also may be pleased to discover that there are more channels in the digital spectrum, with more new programming on the way.
"The message is, great picture, great sound, more channels," says Steinbach. "It's a good thing."
Most local stations have been broadcasting digitally for years, so viewers can start watching digital television right away. Newer televisions can already receive digital broadcasts, but older sets require their antennas to be plugged into a converter box.
The devices, available now at most electronics stores, cost about $60, and the federal government will pay $40 of that, for each of up to two converters per household. (Rebate info is at dtv.gov.)
But as with all new technology, some viewers will have a hard time making the adjustment.
"TV should just work," says Steinbach, whose organization has spent about $20 million on the digital transition. "Turn it on, and it's TV. And all of a sudden, it's not easy. And we know that."
Steinbach says the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is mandating the change, "dramatically underestimated the difficulty of this. They thought people would just get it."
In other countries, he notes, digital television has been phased in market by market, rather than all at once. "But we're well past that point now."
With the transition just 10 months away, local broadcasters are working to get the word out.
"We're airing spots every day," says David Sanks, vice president and general manager of WISC-Ch. 3. "We have a minimum of 16 spots a week. Seven are airing in the 10 o'clock news. We're also airing crawls" - messages across the bottom of the screen.
As the deadline nears, stations throughout the state will simultaneously air a program about the transition. For antenna-only viewers, it will be the only show on the air. Local broadcasters also are holding information sessions for groups like Kiwanis, and at libraries.
Among Madison television workers, perhaps no one has been more outspoken about the transition than Tom Weeden, the chief engineer at WMTV-Ch. 15, who blogs on this issue on the station's website. "We have education to do," he says, "especially among the elderly, minorities, a few other groups. They tend to be more likely to watch over-the-air television."
Weeden also reaches out to a technically savvy crowd with posts at AV Science Forum, an Internet site for consumer-electronics fans. The site hosts a thread about high-definition television in Madison, and since 2004, Weeden has posted dozens of times about WMTV's digital efforts. He responds to queries, reports news and acknowledges glitches.
His efforts have drawn much praise, but also some flak. "It's some people venting and letting off steam," he says, philosophically.
Despite these various outreach efforts, the change still prompts bafflement. One common question: Does the transition affect subscribers to cable and satellite television services - that is to say, most viewers? Answer: No. Only antenna viewers are affected.
Another question: Do digital broadcasts require a high-definition television set? Answer: No. Any properly equipped television can display digital signals, even Aunt Gertrude's old Philco. But high-definition broadcasts - which look marvelous - can only be viewed on HDTV sets.
Speaking of which: Are the so-called HDTV antennas being sold in electronics stores for as much as $150 required for watching HDTV? Answer: No. High-definition signals, and indeed all digital signals, can be received by the most battered set of rabbit ears. "There's no such thing as a digital antenna," says WISC's Sanks.
Marketing HDTV antennas is a clever bit of hucksterism that's contributing to the general confusion surrounding digital television. With confusion comes blame. Says Weeden, "You see a lot of finger-pointing between the FCC and Congress and viewers."
Once viewers sort through the difficulty, they will be rewarded, not merely by a clearer picture, but also by more shows on more stations. With the digital transition, local broadcasters are establishing whole new over-the-air channels - or subchannels, as they're called.
WISC, for example, uses a digital subchannel to broadcast its affiliate of myNetworkTV, the smallest of the six broadcast networks. WMTV devotes a subchannel to local and national weather reports (and, because of an FCC mandate, some children's programming). And, in the fall, WKOW-Ch. 27 will begin digital broadcasts of the Retro Television Network, a new outlet for classic shows. WKOW may also air high school sports on that subchannel.
But Wisconsin Public Television is leading the way with five digital outlets: traditional PBS; a high-definition channel; Create, for cooking and crafts; a kids' channel; and the most ambitious offering, the Wisconsin Channel, which airs university lectures, documentaries and "The 30-Minute Music Hour," a new series featuring local artists (produced and hosted by Isthmus contributor Andy Moore).
"We've wanted to do this for a long time," says Steinbach of the Wisconsin Channel, "and the technology is finally catching up with the mission. The thing that separates public television from many commercial broadcasts is the commitment to localism."
But in Madison, most of these subchannels are available only on antenna-based TVs, or on the web, not to cable customers. Further, Wisconsin Public Television's digital efforts are hampered by a bewildering broadcast schedule. The high-definition service is broadcast only at night, while lower-resolution channels (Create, the Wisconsin Channel, the kids' channel) are on only during the day.
Wisconsin Public Television is in the process of consolidating its digital services. It will probably drop one of the subchannels, especially once PBS follows the lead of the other networks and begins transmitting its main service in HDTV.
In the meantime, Steinbach counts the days till Feb. 17. "I think the government screwed it up," he says of the transition. "Too bad. Here we go, and hang on."