The Marketplace Report: 2009 Deadline for Digital TV

A U.S. Senate committee on Thursday recommended a 2009 deadline for converting all the nation's television signals from analog to digital. Alex Chadwick talks with John Dimsdale of Marketplace about what that deadline would mean for industry and consumers.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

TV is going digital. Many households across the country may have to change their sets to keep up. Yesterday the Senate Commerce Committee set a deadline to complete the conversion from old analog signals to digital TV broadcasts. John Dimsdale joins us from "Marketplace's" Washington bureau.

John, what is the deadline?

JOHN DIMSDALE reporting:

Mark you calendar, Alex. It's April 7th, 2009. That's the date for the end of non-digital TV broadcasts in that Senate bill.

CHADWICK: Did they throw a dart at a calendar, John, or is there--I'm sure there's more to it than that.

DIMSDALE: Oh, this was a hard-fought issue. Lots of competing interests went into it: TV makers, TV networks and stations, retailers and police and fire departments and other first responders all had their input into this date. Plus, not incidentally, April 7th that year comes just after the end of the Final Four NCAA basketball tournaments.

CHADWICK: Right. Yeah.

DIMSDALE: So that's going to be the last time you can watch it on your own analog over-the-air TV set.

CHADWICK: OK. Explain the participation of the firefighters and the first responders because I think that's an important element of this.

DIMSDALE: Yeah. Shutting down the old analog, non-digital broadcast is going to free up lots of over-the-air space for two-way radio signals. Now police and firefighters desperately need that. We saw the problems of a lack of two-way radio space during the 9/11 attacks in New York City. So police and firefighters want all this to happen sooner rather than later, and the government's already given broadcasters digital space on the airwaves, so the government now is asking for that analog space back to give to first responders.

CHADWICK: This means that you're going to have to buy a new TV set pretty soon?

DIMSDALE: That's right, because the old sets can't interpret the new over-the-air digital signal. We're not talking here about cable or satellite delivered broadcasts. Those services provide boxes that show those signals. But close to 80 million over-the-air TV sets will become obsolete in the spring of 2009. You either have to get a new set by then, or you can get a converter box. Now each one of those boxes could cost 50 or even $60. To help low-income people afford them the Senate bill includes $3 billion designed to bring the converter costs down to about $10 a set, and this government subsidy would come from an auction of the old analog space that the broadcasters will be giving up.

CHADWICK: So--and why do all this now, John?

DIMSDALE: Well, as you know, digital signals are clearer, sharper, the sounds are better, plus digital signals make much more efficient use of valuable spectrum space--the airwaves. Broadcasters can fit more broadcasts in the same space, so you can see how they're just licking their chops at the money-making potential of digital broadcasting.

Coming up later today on "Marketplace," we're going to find out how softwood lumber may have done the impossible--make Canadians angry.

CHADWICK: John Dimsdale of public radio's daily business show, "Marketplace," produced by American Public Media. Thank you, John.

DIMSDALE: You're welcome.

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