The Great Digital Scam: TV is irrelevant

Analyst Opinion – It’s been almost a week since the last U.S. analog television signals finally faded to black. By now, if you’re not among the vast majority of viewers getting content through a cable or satellite subscription, you likely find yourself in one of three situations.

1) You bought a digital television
2) You bought a set-top box for your old TV
3) You are staring at a blank screen

You kind of have to feel sorry for the folks who picked door #3. Sure, they’ve known – or should have known for years now – that this day was coming. And, yes, they should have been thankful when the government delayed the deadline from February to June after admitting at the time that broadcasters and citizens alike simply weren’t ready.

But even now, after spending billions on advertising, the change and distributing coupons for converter boxes, tens of millions of Americans find themselves wrestling with TVs, DVDs, VCRs and PVRs that either no longer work, or no longer work the way they once did. The fallout from the confusion surrounding this transition promises to continue for years as consumers realize they’re no longer able to access what they used to – or are being charged more for the privilege.

Who benefits? If you distribute content via cable or satellite, welcome to the Golden Age. The last few million cable-hating holdouts may finally be pushed into your waiting arms if they want to keep watching late night reruns of Matlock on their local network affiliate. Television equipment manufacturers will also cash in as consumers go through the house and inventory any hardware that’s no longer up to snuff. There’s nothing like an across-the-board shift in standards to drive consumer spending.

All this begs what I think is a fair question: Should we be spending this time, energy and money on broadcast infrastructure at all? When analog television first went live, it represented the only way to move a video signal from here to there. Now that the Internet has proven it’s more than capable of accomplishing the same trick, does it make sense to cling to a broadcast-based environment at all?

Considering how many Americans risk being left out in the cold by the current, admittedly messy transition, perhaps it’s time to start asking why we’re diverting tax revenue toward a content distribution infrastructure that most of us would rather not use if given a realistic choice. Instead, we should be asking whether that money would be better spent on technologies and processes that could make IP-based television a mainstream reality instead of an early adopter’s pipe dream.

I know the answer lies in politics, the evolution of business, the Byzantine ways of government and decades of relationships that aren’t easily undone – which is my way of saying I know I’m dreaming in Technicolor. But if the U.S. wants to remain at the global technology leaders’ table, it needs to start spending less on shipping set top box coupons to consumers and more on figuring out what the Internet of tomorrow will look like.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.