Thinking Inside the Box


by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV

It's February 17, 2009.

People are still talking about Brett Favre leading the Packers to that dramatic victory in Super Bowl XLIII (known forevermore as Ice Bowl II).

It looks as if the Golden Eagles, the Badgers, and the Panthers will ALL be headed to the Big Dance. It's no wonder that Wisconsin's abuzz with pre-March Madness!

We're almost a month into the post-George W. Bush era; the new president was sworn-in January 20 on a cold but sun-drenched Washington day. Quite a historic election, wasn't it!

And the newspaper is reporting that Milwaukee's hometown airline has successfully fended off yet another hostile takeover bid (which means we're still assured of getting those warm chocolate chip cookies on our next flight).

So let's settle into our easy chair and see what's on TV -- that's Milwaukee Public TV, of course!

Hitting channel 10 on the remote. Hmm, that's odd. Nothing there. Wonder if they're having some transmission problems. Better check channel 36. Blank, too. There must be something wrong at MPTV.

OK then, what's on channel 4? Nothing. Channel 6? Zip. Channel 12? Something funny's going on here. There's no signal on channel 58 either.

Is my TV set on the blink? Do I need a new one?

Well, not exactly. The scenario you've just read, however, may be very close to the truth just a bit less than two years from now (OK, the prediction about Brett Favre may be a bit of a stretch).

On February 17, 2009, none of the TV stations you grew up with will be there anymore. Neither channel 10 nor 36, nor 4, 6, 12, 18, 24, and 58 for that matter. February 17, 2009, is the day when the FCC has mandated that all the old (analog) TV stations will stop transmitting and be replaced with digital TV signals on new channels.

All the Milwaukee-area stations will still be in business, God willing, but your old TV set will not be able to pick them up without some assistance. The old rabbit ears and roof antennas, by themselves, won't cut it.

The best way to get the new stations will be on a high definition television (HDTV) set that shows the programs in all their true digital glory (which is gorgeous to the eye and ear, by the way). Be aware, however, that while "HD Ready" sets can display digital signals, too, they will typically require an additional HD tuner to receive the new signals off the air.

If you decide to purchase a new TV, you'll be happy to know that all sets manufactured after March 1, 2007, will include digital tuners.

Cable TV will be an alternative. Cable providers have promised to carry the new local digital TV stations, but they may not be on the channels on which you're used to seeing them. And you may need to get a more expensive, upgraded cable box to get them.

If you get your TV from satellite providers like DirecTV or EchoStar, however, all bets are off. Those services have not yet agreed to carry the new local digital stations. We are hoping all this will be resolved long before 2009, but it may require regulatory action from the Federal Communications Commission.

If you wish to continue to watch MPTV without a new digital TV set or cable, there is another option. Coming on the market, in anticipation of this 2009 "analog shut-off," will be converter boxes that will enable your old set to pick up the digital signals. You will not be able to get a true high definition signal with these, but they will allow viewing of the programs within the capabilities of your current analog TV set.

Congress realizes that the transition, a federal mandate, may be a hardship for families that cannot afford cable or satellite and rely on over-the-air signals. So they have allocated up to $1.34 billion for a national converter box coupon program. Beginning next year, households may be able to obtain up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of these boxes (the units are expected to cost between $50-$75).

And there will be a national consumer education initiative on the digital transition and the availability of converter boxes. Public television is expected to take a lead role in the development and distribution of informational material.

That education program will be necessary. In a recent survey commissioned by our industry group, the Association of Public Television Stations, 61 percent of those who receive their television signals over the air said they had no idea about the digital transition. Forty-five percent of the respondents said they will either "do nothing" or "don't know" what they will do to ensure they receive the new digital stations.

Nationally, 22 million homes rely on free, over-the-air signals -- not cable or satellite -- for their TV. These households are of great concern to us because studies have show they are heavy viewers of public television.

What we are hoping is that on the morning of February 17, 2009 -- just two years from now -- you'll know where to find the digital stations of MPTV, whether you are using your own antenna, or cable, or satellite.

(And we'll all be getting ready for the Brewers to start spring training as the defending 2008 World Champions, naturally!)

-Ellis Bromberg
MPTV General Manager