Change is coming to America. You can't see it or touch it, and it may not be compatible with your existing hardware, but it's change you can believe in. On Feb. 17, the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 is scheduled to go into effect, and one of the great technological monuments of this country, one that has endured for 68 years, will be rendered obsolete. I speak, of course, of the analog television signal.
Feb. 17 is the date of what people are calling the great digital switchover--or sometimes, kind of poetically, the "analog sunset." On that date, all full-power TV stations will be required to stop broadcasting analog TV signals and transmit only digital ones. Most people won't be affected: you can pick up digital TV using a regular old antenna--you just need to make sure your TV has a digital tuner in it, which all new and newish TVs have. After March 1, 2007, manufacturers were pretty much required to put a digital tuner in every TV they made. If you have cable or satellite TV, you can stop reading now. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)
But if you have an analog-only TV, you'll need to get a set-top digital-to-analog converter box in order to keep receiving your episodes of Gary Unmarried. It costs about $50. The government feels bad about making you do this, so it is distributing $40 coupons to help bankroll your upgrade. Call it the analog bailout.
The transition hasn't been exactly silky-smooth. The FCC has been blanketing the media with warnings, but there are still about 8 million steadfastly analog households out there, according to Nielsen, and the government has already run through the entire $1.34 billion it had set aside for those converter-box coupons. (There's a limit of two per household, and they expire 90 days after they're issued.) The situation is bad enough that it has actually become a presidential transition issue: on Jan. 8, John Podesta, Obama's transition-team co-chair, sent a letter to Congress asking it to push back the date. So far, the Bush Administration hasn't budged.
So ... why are we doing this? Oh, about a zillion reasons. Digital TV makes possible better sound and a sharper picture as well as something called multicasting, which means that--because digital signals are more compact than analog ones--single stations will be able to broadcast multiple channels of programming all at once. The switchover will also free up a lot of space on the overcrowded airwaves. Some of it will be used for an improved post--Sept. 11, post-Katrina emergency-broadcast system (yes, even better than those color bars and that weirdly aggravating tone). The rest of it went to the highest bidder: last year, in the biggest government auction of all time, rights to much of the 700-MHz spectrum--known to you and me as UHF channels 52 through 69--were sold off for an astounding $19 billion. Verizon and AT&T were the big winners. What they'll do with them is still anybody's guess.
Fairly or unfairly, neatly or messily, sooner or later the switchover will happen. And when it does, we should take a moment to salute the passing of the analog era. Just as vinyl records gave rise to scratching and skipping, analog TV created a whole gallery of hallucinatory special effects: ghosting, snow, psychedelic colors, vertical hold. We hated them at the time, but we may yet come to miss them. Digital signals are more robust than analog--they're less prone to distortion, and when they break up, they do it in tidy little squares, which aren't nearly as fun. In other words, after Feb. 17, do not attempt to adjust your television. It won't need you anymore.