Digital TV

Thursday, July 02, 2009
Beaver Dam, WI

Are you as happy as I am that the "digital transition" has occurred? That's right, it's over, done, fini... it's a wrap as of about a month ago. TV stations all around the USA have stopped broadcasting in fuzzy but far reaching analog signals. Instead, their new digital signals are more efficient -- able to carry more programming on less bandwidth with less power. The results are a perfectly clear picture -- as long as you can get the signal.

Anyone that was sleeping through all those months and months of warnings and tests about this historic change is now staring at static and noise instead of a clear picture and digital sound. It occurred to me that perhaps the real value of static and noise is about the same as most of the pabulum generated by industry execs selling the viewing public on shock and awe programming in order to make a few more bucks. Much of what I've seen on the 150 channels of clear digital programming on DirecTV is really just static and noise with a bit more order added to make it watch-able. There is very little difference... IMHO.

Anyway, the reason I'm so darn happy is that I don't have to listen to all the warnings and tests anymore. Near the end of the transition period they were actually interrupting the pledge drives on PBS to warn people about the doom that was about to descend on their lives... NO TV!

Well, it's over and things have settled down. And now we can move on to more important things... like how to get that digital signal.

There are many people who don't know that you can actually receive a TV signal for free off the air. Most of these people are below the age of 35, and have gotten their TV exclusively from cable or satellite providers like Charter, Comcast, or DirecTV or Dish. They've become acclimated, and have accepted paying twice for TV programming... first by having to sit through all those commercial ads that consume 20 minutes of every television hour... and second, by having to pay someone else to send the signal to their TV.

A few years ago, in simpler times, it was common in social circles to rip on the cable and satellite companies for their unfettered power over us. They could, and did, raise their prices at every turn. They controlled the programming that was offered in the various packages. They were famously bad at customer service, making it necessary to take the day off of work in order to let the cable guy in... only to have him not show up. There was indignation, anger, and a desire for an alternative.

But lately I've sensed that people are inclined to defend their TV signal provider. Why, they just couldn't live without their Dish or their cable. They've been bludgeoned and bribed into becoming true believers. For many, being connected to a TV signal 24/7 is a priority of existence. And then there's the hook of the DVR or TIVO -- it's provided by these signal carriers (for a price) and makes it more difficult to kick the cable or satellite habit. The perceived benefit outweighs the cost, which for many is approaching 100 bucks each month.

People, the alternative is here... at least for many of us. It really never went away, but now, with digital signals, it's even better. It's called pulling the TV signal "off-the-air" for FREE! It's such a good deal that many almost feel dirty doing it... isn't it illegal?... isn't this piracy? You want to keep the drapes closed and lights down to keep from tipping off the signal police.

What do you get for free? A perfect picture, sub-channels that aren't offered by cable or satellite, and high-definition programming that you pay extra for with "the other guys". It's really quite a remarkable deal.

Depending where you live you can get this signal with a simple antenna. Years ago, when I was growing up, every house had a TV antenna on the roof. They were large spiky-looking things that did a good job of bringing in all 3 channels from Milwaukee.

Today's antennas are smaller and more efficient. If you're close to the TV transmitter you might get along just fine with "rabbit ears". If you're further away you'll need more. But even here in Beaver Dam it's possible to put a brand-spanking-new antenna, rotor, and power booster on your house for about $500, installed, and get about 50 channels of programming. If your cable or satellite bill is $50/month, that's only a ten month payback. And then your television viewing habit is FREE! What could you do with an extra 50 or 100 bucks every month?

But the big payback is when you call your old cable or satellite company and tell them to "stick it".