Profiting from the DTV Switchover... Delayed or Not
Last December, I thought we had written the last story on the transition from analog to digital terrestrial television broadcasting in the United States. I even thought it would e cool to quote Crosby, Stills & Nash: “It’s been a long time coming...” about DTV. After all, it’s been well over 25 years since there were public demonstrations of HDTV in U.S., more than 20 years since the formationof the ATSC, and more than 15 years since the “Grand Alliance” group was formed as a means of bringing together the different DTV and HDTV versions floated in the late 1980s and early
Work with your clients to ensure that all of their sets will continue to receive off-air programming, either through a terrestrial antenna, converter box, a connection through cable or satellite service. 1990s.
However,recent events swirling around Washington remind us that CS&N continued the song with, “...you know that something is going on around here...” and that “...it appears to be a long, long, long time before the dawn!" And so it may be.
As of this writing, it is uncertain if the longawaited February 17 analog service shutdown will happen as scheduled. Since that date was set by an act of Congress, neither lobbyists nor the FCC can make it happen by dint of a press conference or committee meeting. Regardless of whether or not the date is delayed, the transition will take place, sooner or later. Let’s take an optimistic view and continue as if the transition will happen on schedule.
FINAL STEPS FOR CLIENTS
I hope that you you’ve worked with your clients to ensure that all of their sets will continue to receive off-air programming, either through a terrestrial antenna and a set with a built-in ATSC tuner or a “CECB” external converter box, or via connection through cable or satellite service. However, all of that is not without potential pitfalls.
For starters, when reception is via an antenna and off-air tuning, make certain that all sets have been rescanned on or after the transition date. While some stations will keep their digital signal on the channel where it has been all along, others will move their digital service to the former analog channel or switch the post-transition digital signal to a totally different channel. Depending on the use of more sophisticated display remotes and control systems, some additional programming may also be needed. While you’re at it, not only will this mean a re-scan, but you will probably want to reset any “favorite-channel” listings.
CABLE SYSTEMS AFFECTED TOO
Don’t think that this is an off-air reception issue only. As cable systems add more services in HD there will inevitably be line-up changes, as well. During your “DTV tune-up” visits, carry the channel listings for each cable system in your area and make certain that sets using direct cable connection and “clear QAM” reception are also rescanned. Our experience with some DTV sets has been that this is not always an obvious task, and it may be one that your clients may not have the patience for on their own.
There will also be cases where the coverage for a channel or two in a given market will be reduced or expanded, consequently losing or gaining viewers. If the coverage changes results in losing key channels without gaining alternatives, particularly when a client’s home is at the edge of a station’s coverage area, this might be the time to upgrade their off-air antenna system. To see if this affects your area, check the very comprehensive maps and data available from the FCC at www.fcc.gov/dtv/markets/report2.html.
Even clients who receive off-air broadcasting via translators or low-power stations, which will continue in analog past February 17, may not be able to avoid all of this. Some of those stations, despite continued analog transmission, may still change channels. Check with your local broadcasters to get the details if this is important for your business.
While direct off-air pick-up is important for some, many more viewers rely on cable. In most cases, that means that you won’t have to replace existing analog sets, but some work is still there to be done. Most important, one hopes that by now you’ve contacted the cable companies serving your clients and found out if they will continue to provide the new digital channels from the local stations via analog, or if they will turn everything to digital, requiring the installation of cable settops for analog-only sets to continue to work with cable. Either way, there will be channel listings to be changed and in some cases cabinets or shelves reworked so that room is made for the STB where none was previously required.
In addition, to prevent some inevitable phone calls from clients, check to see how the cable systems will be re-transmitting off-air HD via analog. In some cases, as is currently being done on the Time Warner system that serves my home, the 16:9 off-air HD signals of some channels are being forced into a 4:3 aspect ratio. That meets the requirements of the law, and it lets you continue to use a direct connection to an older “cable-ready” analog TV, but it results in an image that is “postage stamped,” with letterbox bars above and “pillar bars” on the side at the same time. That is definitely going to a source of annoyance on the older small screen TVs that will typically still be used with this type of connection. Be ready to explain why this is happening to your clients, as the CSRs at the cable company my not understand what it happening to cause the small picture. Even better, use it as a reasonable opportunity to suggest that the set in question be replaced with something equipped for “Clear QAM” receptin, if a cable box is not an option.
Sticking with cable and circling back to rules and regulations, there is still no ruling on whether or not cable systems will be required to carry multicast channels. While some systems may carry the occasional weather channel or two from a broadcast multicast, it is unlikely that the MSOs will carry each and every sub-channel, unless the FCC mandates that they do so, and even then a court battle would probably be instantaneous.
INTEREST IN SUB-CHANNELS
While some of the sub-channels are just replays of newscasts or filled with infomercials, others carry programming that may be of interest to your customers. The need to provide an off-air signal to the TV to receive them is something that you can certainly monetize. Content varies from city to city, but a sampling of what is available based on the services broadcast in Los Angeles shows that you may have micro-local coverage, including local traffic-cams, ethnic and foreign-language programming not available elsewhere, childrens programming, additional services from PBS such as Create, and in many markets you will find a wide range of religious programming. From the broad palette, there is going to be something that your clients, or the people in their household, will want to view but find that they can only receive it with an off-air antenna.
This situation gives you an opportunity to add an outdoor antenna,
Today’s indoor antennae are a far cry from the old dipoles that your father used to use. Terk Technologies’ HDTVa amplified indoor HDTV antenna is designed to capture both UHF and VHF signals while extending the reception range for all local HDTV broadcasts. where required, or in many cases select an indoor antenna that does the trick. While “rabbit ears” have been used throughout the digital transition to symbolize old-fashioned analog broadcasting, today’s indoor antennae are a far cry from the old dipoles that your father used to use. Brands such as Audiovox, Philips, RCA, Terk, Weingard, Zenith, and others offer products that range from the Silver Sensor, which looks like a miniature outdoor antenna, to the flat-panel designs that are thin enough to fit behind a bookshelf or cabinet and still produce good results.
Yes, these are products the client could clearly get at retail and put in themselves, but if your techs have one or two in their trucks and show how they work when doing that DTV check-up, then you’ll probably make the sale and show how your teams know their stuff.
THE TV ITSELF
Finally, we need to circle back to the core of all of this. Take a census of your clients or new business prospects and you may be surprised to find the number of small-sized analog sets still chugging along in the kitchen, home office, kid’s room, guest room, exercise room, or bath. These sets, their installation, and configuration may represent a major opportunity for you. As one specialty dealer/installer told me during CES, “Virtually all of our customers replaced their main room or home theater displays with HD sets a few years ago, and many are well through their “secondary” sets such as master bedrooms. It is the “tertiary” sets that now represent a major opportunity.”
You should expand the opportunity to include significant add-ons, as well. Think of the millions of “under-cabinet” nine and 13-inch CRTs sold over the years that included a built-in, under-cabinet swivel mount. Now, think of how many 16- or 19-inch 16:9 aspect-ratio LCD sets are out there today with swivel mounts included. The answer is just about zero.
That leaves you with a perfect opportunity to add a mount to the set sale, using your expertise to fit the set so that it folds up under the cabinets or fits flat to a back panel. To do this properly will likely require a multi-arm/multi-joint mount, something probably well beyond even the ambitious do-ityourselfer, particularly when cable management for signal and power is mixed into the fray.
OFF-AIR RECORDING OPTIONS
If your client’s needs also include off-air recording, this is one last area to investigate. As the American public never truly seemed to move beyond the “flashing 12:00” that was the butt of late night comics’ jokes for years, and with stand-alone VCRs no longer available, it’s unlikely that you will need to replace one for off-air recording. However, it’s also just as likely that many homes still have closets full of old camcorder tapes that get pulled out during family gatherings. Use the digital transition as another opportunity to offer conversion service of these tapes to DVD or Blu-ray discs, or at the very least replace any old VCRs with the VCR/DVD or VCR/Blu-ray combo products that were still very much in evidence last month at CES.
DVRs have made the VCR a thing of the past, and with retail-sale products available from TiVo and soon from Digeo and others, as well as from the satellite services, the DVD recorder isn’t as prevalent as it was a year or two ago, or as some projected it might have been. Nevertheless, standalone DVD recorders provide a means of archiving off-air content on physical media, something that appeals to the collectors among your client base who might want to save something off the hard drive and not wait for the studio to release it on DVD. To accommodate this, check to make certain that any DVD recorders connected directly to cable are properly re-configured, if needed, to accommodate new signal inputs just as you would if it were a TV instead of a recorder. Similarly, when re-scanning the channel line up in all of the TVs in a home, don’t forget the DVD recorders, as their ATSC or clear-QAM tuners will also need to be rescanned.
There may be more products and services that you can add to your own DTV tune-up service packages, but hopefully these will provide a starting point. Let the end of analog, full-power, terrestrial broadcasting auger to your benefit in times when the economy may cause even the high-end client to cut back. It has, indeed been a very “long time coming,” and it is unlikely that many of us will see this type of complete transition again in our lifetimes. Profit from it as you lift a glass to the end of the 70-year era of analog TV.
Michael Heiss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor and product guru for Residential Systems, out of Los Angeles, California.