Digging Digital TV

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

I have a 42-inch flat-screen TV, but for reasons that I'd prefer not to go into here, I do not have cable. I do have a set of old bunny ears, and if I stand at just the right distance from my TV, I get the Korean and Spanish UHF channels really well. But since I don't speak Korean or Spanish, and my legs get tired, I don't tend to watch much television.

Having said that, I've been hearing a lot about the conversion to digital TV, including the fact that over-the-air digital broadcasts come in clearer than the old analog signals. So I thought -– at least for the purposes of journalistic curiosity –- I should check it out. I was planning on buying one of those digital converter boxes when my co-worker Harriet pointed out that because I had a newer TV, I already had a digital tuner built in and I didn't need a box.

So I went home and sure enough, ten minutes after hitting the “program digital channels” button on my TV remote, I was in the digital age, in all its eye-popping glory. The local news now looks like an ad for teeth whitening, sitcoms look more surreally fake and NFL games look more surreally real. All those months and I could have been seen the pores on Oprah's face! But seriously, you really so have to watch Jeopardy in 1080-i hi-def just to see how much work they've put into waxing the floor. It's super shiny.

So now, with nothing more than those old bunny ears sitting on top of my fancy new TV, I bring in maybe 40 clear-as-a-bell channels, many of them in hi-def, with information about the shows displayed right there on the screen. And even without the hundreds of channels I would have if I paid for TV, I have managed to joined the ranks of Americanus Slothis -– the common American couch potato, flipping channels maniacally until my thumb is sore and my brain is numb.

This is sad for me, but it has to be a dream scenario for the networks. I have gone from almost no TV viewing per week to something like 1,000 hours a week. With broadcast TV audience at their lowest point ever –- in large part because of cable's high-quality and vertically appealing programming –- why aren't the broadcast networks advertising there most appealing quality –- that it's free? It seems like a great pitch, especially in these hard economic times. “Toss out that cable bill! And forget having to wait all day for the cable guy!”

Maybe it's because they know that even in hi-def, their programming largely sucks –- it just sucks that much more clearly. But you know, you get what you pay for.

Last night I watched Hole in the Wall on Fox, in which average, sometimes middle-aged and/or overweight Americans are squeezed into shiny, skintight suits and attempt to fit through oddly shaped holes in a fast-moving wall...or get knocked violently into a pool of water. And just a few weeks after I got digital TV, I started to wonder if there was a way I could back to the way I used to spend my evenings…hanging out with my friends, reading or watching movies. I guess I could turn off the TV...but everything's so shiny!

Remember – on February 17, broadcast-television stations will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital. If you have a digit TV, all you need is to tune to the digital channels. If you have an analog TV, you'll need to get a convertor box. And if you have cable or satellite, you won't notice a difference. If you get rid of your TV altogether, you will.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at kcrw.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman. Happy New Year!



Matt Holzman