From The Editor | June 20, 2024

The Day Analog TV Died

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By John Oncea, Editor


The broadcasting industry has undergone significant transformations, none more impactful than the June 12, 2009, transition from analog systems to digital systems.

June 12, 2009. Joe Louis Arena. The Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings is tied at three games apiece.

Trailing 2-1, Detroit wins a faceoff to the left of Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with 6.2 seconds left in regulation. The Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg fires a shot from near the blue line with 3.8 seconds left that Fleury deflects to his right.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom jumps on the loose puck at the left faceoff circle and shoots the puck toward a seemingly wide-open net with 1.3 seconds left.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Fleury makes a desperate lunging save to preserve the win and deliver Penguins’ fans the club’s third Stanely Cup championship, setting off a whirlwind of celebration and jubilation.

“The Penguins’ win over the Red Wings drew a 4.3/8 final rating and 8 million viewers on NBC Friday night,” notes Sports Media Watch. That made it “the most-viewed NHL telecast on any network since Canadiens/Blackhawks Game 6 drew 9.4 million in 1973.”

It also was the last hockey game ever broadcast in analog, as at 11:59 p.m. that evening an FCC-mandated switch to digital broadcasting was put fully into effect, ending analog’s 60-year run as the U.S.’s broadcasting system.

Still, as powerful as the FCC is, it can’t match the power of passionate fans, at least according to NorthEast Radio Watch which wrote at the time, “And in Pittsburgh ... well, the good folks of the Steel City had something else on their minds as the clock ticked toward that 11:59 p.m. deadline on Friday, thanks to Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Stanley Cup-winning Penguins.

“What would have happened if NBC’s coverage of the crucial Game 7 matchup with the Red Wings stretched to midnight? Word has it that the fear of outraged Pens fans would have outweighed any fear of FCC action – and that WPXI would have kept its analog signal on the air through the end of the game.”

Analog Is Dead, Long Live Digital

The groundwork for television technology was laid in the late 1800s with the development of the cathode-ray tube and the mechanical scanner system by Karl Ferdinand Braun and Paul Nipkow, respectively. Between 1900 and 1920, contributions were made by John Logie Baird, Philo Farnsworth, Kenjiro Takayanagi, and others, according to TechTarget.

Television broadcasting evolved between 1928 and 1940, culminating with FCC standards set in the early 1940s that television sets receive programs via analog signals made of radio waves. “The analog signal reached television sets through three different methods: over the airwaves, through a cable wire, or by satellite transmission,” writes The New York Times.

Despite lasting for more than 60 years, the system had several drawbacks. Analog systems were susceptible to static and distortion, resulting in poorer picture quality compared to films shown in movie theaters. As television sets became larger, the limited resolution made scan lines very noticeable, reducing the image's clarity.

As a result, technology was developed that resulted in better-quality television formats leading the broadcast industry to ask the FCC to study the desirability and impact of switching to digital television, a more efficient and flexible form of broadcast technology (that) uses signals that translate television images and sounds into binary code, working in much the same way as a computer.

“In 1987, the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services began meeting to test various television systems, both analog and digital,” The New York Times writes. “The committee ultimately agreed to switch from analog to digital format in 2009, allowing a transition period in which broadcasters could send their signal on both an analog and a digital channel.”

Following 20 years of investigation, the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services decided to switch the nationally required broadcast format from analog to digital in 2009, TechTarget writes. “Once the transition period ended, older analog TV sets were unable to access broadcast signals without a special converter. The analog broadcast systems were sold to wireless networks.”

In addition, older analog television sets were unusable without a cable or satellite service or a digital converter, writes The New York Times. “To retain consumers’ access to free over-the-air television, the federal government offered $40 gift cards to people who needed to buy a digital converter, expecting to recoup its costs by auctioning off the old analog broadcast spectrum to wireless companies.”

Luxembourg was the first country to make a wholesale switch to digital broadcasting in 2006, followed later that same year by the Netherlands. The digital television transition in the U.S. was completed on 12 June 2009, the date set by the FCC.

Legislating And Testing Digital Transmission

Under the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, analog broadcasting was planned to end on February 17, 2009. The DTV Delay Act changed the mandatory analog cutoff date to June 12, 2009, although stations were permitted to cease analog transmissions before the new mandatory cutoff date. According to White House archives, The legislation was passed by both houses of Congress by February 4, 2009, and on February 11, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signed it into law.

After the June 12 deadline, analog broadcasting did not completely stop. According to the Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act, about 120 full-power stations temporarily continued to provide analog nightlight service. They usually aired a program about the DTV transition, which ended no later than July 12, 2009. Additionally, low-power television stations were allowed to keep broadcasting analog signals for several more years.

Wilmington, N.C. was selected by the FCC to evaluate its plan and iron out any potential problems ahead of the national shutoff and all of the city’s major commercial network stations ceased analog transmission on September 8, 2008. Wilmington was chosen for two reasons: the area's digital channel positions would remain unchanged after the transition, and it had no hills to cause reception problems and all of the stations would have UHF channels.

Before the change, viewers were informed through several months of public service announcements, town hall meetings, and local news coverage. Only 7% of viewers were impacted by the discontinuation of analog broadcasts, as most others had cable or satellite subscriptions. However, this led to 1,800 calls to the FCC for assistance leaving officials worried about the potential implications in larger markets or areas where more than 30% of the population relied on over-the-air broadcasts.

Many viewers called with questions about installing antennas and converters for digital TV. Some had trouble getting existing channels even after correctly installing the converter. One example is WECT (NBC 6 Wilmington), which used to reach Myrtle Beach but was lost when it moved to UHF 44. WECT's coverage area decreased significantly. On the other hand, a new NBC affiliate, WMBF-TV, started broadcasting digitally and served Myrtle Beach with a good signal. This new station was owned by Raycom Media, like WECT.

The FCC issued an order on November 7, 2008, allowing stations to build distributed transmission systems if they were unable to cover their original analog footprint with their new digital channels and facilities. Although broadcasters can now apply for DTS facilities, this decision was made too late for the extra transmitter sites to be constructed and operational before the original February 17, 2009, analog shutoff. On February 8, 2006, President Bush signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 bill to end analog television by February 17, 2009.

It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times

The switch from analog to digital television represented “the most significant advancement of television technology since color TV was introduced,” wrote David Rehr, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters at the time. “The benefits of digital television are undeniable: dramatically clearer pictures and sound quality, more programming choices through multicasting, efficiency that will open up space in the airwaves for other uses, and the capability to deliver high-definition programs.

And, as the Penguins celebrated on the ice, the last of the stations broadcasting in analog were making the switch to digital. Some celebrated the switch, others feared it.

Among those lauding the switch was Bill Bryant who wrote, “June 12, 2009, is a day that will be a timeless mark on the calendar for the Audio Visual nerds (like myself) of America. This was the last day the analog broadcast signal was transmitted to homes across America. At (11:59 p.m.), the analog broadcast age came to an end (RIP lol, think about it, over half a century of television was broadcast like this) and now all TV signals are broadcasted digitally using a converter box or DTV set.

“This video is of my friend Steve Holy and me in front of one of my TVs that I didn't hitch up with a converter box, for the sole purpose of filming when the original broadcast signal went black! To the average person, this may be irrelevant, but for me, it was pretty damn epic! To think, my generation can grow old and someday say ‘When I was a kid, TV shows were broadcasted with antennas, not digitally.’”

On the other hand, CNY Central reported at the time that more than one million unprepared homes would be without television service, and the FCC, “put 4,000 operators on standby for calls from confused viewers and set up demonstration centers in several cities. Volunteer groups and local government agencies were helping elderly people set up digital converter boxes that keep older TVs functioning.”

Eighty-two-year-old Patrica Bruchalski told CNY Central of her fear of being isolated if her TV stopped working, saying, “When you're alone like me, (TV is your) partner.” CNY Central added, “Bruchalski, a pianist and former opera singer in Brooklyn Park, MD, got assistance Thursday from Anne Arundel County’s Department of Aging and Disabilities and a community organization called Partners in Care. After her converter box was installed, Bruchalski marveled those digital broadcasts seemed clearer and gave her more channels – about 15 instead of the three she was used to.”

Adding to the public’s confusion was many stations moved new frequencies at the time of the switch, meaning even digital TV sets and older sets hooked up to converter boxes needed to be set to re-scan the airwaves. “Some people might also need new antennas because digital signals travel differently than analog ones,” wrote CNY Central. “While a weakly received analog channel might be viewable through some static, channels broadcast in the digital language of ones and zeros are generally all or nothing: If they don't come in perfectly, they are blank or they show a stuttering picture that breaks apart into blocks of color.”

Prepping For The Switch

Rehr’s article demonstrates much as being done in advance of the June 12 switch, writing, “Local television stations have spent more than $5 billion updating their equipment and infrastructure for the digital transition, and (as of January 7, 2008) more than 92% of full-power television stations in the U.S. are already broadcasting in digital alongside their analog broadcasts. But only half of consumers nationwide know anything about the (June 2009) transition.”

At the time, 19.6 million households relied exclusively on free over-the-air broadcasts. An additional 14.9 million had secondary over-the-air sets in their bedrooms or kitchens. “Overall, about 69 million television sets will be affected by the transition,” wrote Rehr.

Broadcasters spent nearly $700 million on a campaign led by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to ensure that no viewer lost access to free broadcast programming in 2009 when television stations switched to all-digital broadcasting. The multiplatform, multifaceted campaign included a rich variety of on-air, online, and grassroots initiatives, as well as earned media and advertising components. Broadcast networks and television stations also reached out to viewers through other initiatives, including:

  • DTV Action television spots
  • Crawls and news tickers during programming
  • Half-hour educational programs about DTV
  • Public relations elements, including earned media coverage in newspapers and online
  • A DTV Road Show that visited 600 locations nationwide
  • A DTV Speakers Bureau that reached one million consumers
  • Online banner ads on TV station websites

So, How’d It Go?

Eighteen days after the transition, then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech that the transition “succeeded far beyond expectations. You pulled it off by collaborating with each other across the agency, and with the Commerce Department and other parts of government, and by thinking creatively to leverage all available resources.”

Genachowski's predecessor, Michael Copps, called the process, “A huge transition with significant impact on consumers that was not until the last moment adequately planned for or coordinated,” according to Next TV. “[It was] a transition that led to problems that were largely predictable and one that we moved measurably forward from January to June to the benefit of many consumers. But it's not a closed book. It is ongoing. There are still problems out there, lessons to be learned, and a document to write.”

Five months after the transition, Nielsen reported, “The great majority of U.S. households (97.5%) were prepared for the digital transition in the week prior to the power turn-off. Nielsen data shows unprepared homes were more likely to be minorities, younger, lower income, and were less likely to have internet access. Most homes acquired a digital converter box to make their television ready for the change.”

After TV stations switched to digital-only broadcasting, there was an 8% decrease in viewership immediately following the shutdown of analog transmission. This decline was mainly due to two reasons: first, half of the decrease was because homes were not fully prepared for the digital transition. Second, 13% of the previous audience came from homes with at least one unprepared television set and one prepared set. It is likely that the stations also lost some viewers from these partially unprepared homes.

“Stations that changed channel positions from UHF (ultra high frequency) to VHF (very high frequency) were more impacted, showing a 13% share decline,” noted Nielsen. “This change in channel position created challenges in household receivability, since homes with digital antennas — which were only capable of receiving UHF signals — were not able to receive VHF digital signals and homes could not receive these channels without performing a re-scan of their converter boxes.”

Before the switch to digital broadcasting, a higher percentage of people using unready television sets were watching Spanish-language broadcast networks compared to English-language networks. Just before the analog TV signal was turned off, 3% of viewers of English-language national broadcast networks were using unready sets, while that number tripled to 9% for Spanish-language broadcast networks.