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Digital TV's changing channels

There are plenty of questions in the air as television stations turn off their analog signals.

June 12, 2009

Television stations across the country will shut off their conventional signals today, leaving only their digital channels on the air. This development can't come as a surprise to viewers old enough to own the set they're watching -- digital TV transmissions started more than a decade ago, and broadcasters have been trumpeting the end of analog TV for nearly a year. Several hundred have already made the switch. Nevertheless, Nielsen surveys suggest that hundreds of thousands of Angelenos and millions of others across the country who rely on over-the-air TV will be caught unprepared for the change.

Given television's central role in conveying news and emergency information, it's not a good thing when viewers' screens are darkened by technological change. But the benefits of the switch to digital are important enough to get on with it, even though local agencies and volunteer groups will be left scrambling to help the stragglers. The four-month delay that Congress imposed in February gave federal officials time to line up resources across the country to help those who can't manage the change on their own, and to make it easy to find help by phone (1-888-CALL-FCC) or online ( www.dtv.gov).

The analog cutoff isn't the end of the digital transition, however. Still to come are new digital services that use airwaves the broadcasters are vacating, including improved communications networks for public safety and wireless data offerings. These benefits are as significant to the public as the high-definition video and extra programming on many digital TV channels. The Federal Communications Commission also has a number of loose ends to tie up, including the question of how broadcasters fulfill their public-interest obligations in the digital era.

TV and radio stations receive free access to the airwaves, but to keep their licenses they're obliged to serve the public "convenience, interest or necessity." In the Supreme Court's view, that means providing "adequate coverage to public issues." But it's not clear what that means when broadcasters are supplemented by effectively unlimited outlets online for news, information and opinion. The FCC needs to finish its long-delayed rule-making on the subject, bearing in mind that five political appointees in Washington are poorly equipped to dictate how local viewers' interests are best served. A better approach would be to make sure broadcasters listen to their viewers and share their publicly subsidized megaphone with their communities in the creative and competitive ways that broadcasters are in the best position to develop.

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