Why The Digital TV Switch Off Is (Almost) Irrelevant

Tomorrow sees the first region in Australia, Mildura/Sunraysia, switch off its analogue TV signal and move to a totally digital regime. While it's a historic moment, it doesn't take John Logie Baird to work out what it actually means: not all that much.

Picture by maximejoris

The initial reaction is going to be tediously predictable. A newspaper will locate a pensioner who wasn't aware of the switchover, and who now finds themselves facing the prospect of not being able to watch news bulletins at 4:30pm, 5:00pm, 6:00pm, 7:00pm and 7:30pm unless they buy some new equipment. The TV industry will point out that when the figures were last measured in April, more than 87% of people in the area and 68% of Australians overall knew they needed new equipment for digital TV and that some of them even got scammed in the process. There'll be a momentary kerfuffle, a few insulting comments about dentures, and then the attention of news journos will be distracted by something stupid happening on Masterchef or Julia Gillard's hair colour and life will largely go on as usual.

Does that mean the switchover from analogue to digital doesn't matter? Not at all. One of the mistakes that's endlessly repeated in the technology space is assuming that because a new technology is available, everything that's gone before is suddenly irrelevant.

In reality, older techs often survive, albeit in changing quantities. We've reached the point where people have started pronouncing the death of the CD, but it's still not that difficult to buy a vinyl record, which CDs themselves were meant to kill. In fact, it's about as easy to buy a vinyl record as a CD, given how many shops don't stock either. Thank goodness for that Internet thing.

In the world of entertainment tech, choices multiply more often than they evaporate, but their relative availability shifts at the same time. To quote from the set theory I haven't thought about much since I was a teenager, the Venn diagrams will overlap quite considerably.

The switch to digital TV marks one of the rare occasions where an option really will disappear: anyone who hasn't bought a new TV or a set-top box will indeed have a black screen. But that will still be a tiny percentage of people, some of whom will probably be quite happy never to see Daryl Somers again. The radio and the DVD player and the cinema down the road and the ageing VHS deck and the old 45 turntable in the attic will still keep going — and that's before anyone switches on their dilapidated 486.

The reality is that even though digital television brings a number of benefits — better signal and a choice of more channels — the people who care about that will largely have made the switch by now. If you've resisted the blanket advertising and the pensioner subsidies and the hidden attractions of GO!, you're probably not going to be persuaded now, especially when you learn about digital TV's built-in annoyances and get confused by a few more Freeview commercials.

It's also worth remembering that those benefits already aren't evenly distributed. Regional viewers have had a slower path to multiple digital channels. By the time some of them get it, Channel BT — a model lots of Australians like even if there's still no clear business model. And future distribution models like Google TV will intersect with existing options like iView to make the picture even more confusing.

The key word there is confusing, not blurred. The options will continue to multiply. You might spend part of this week explaining to your elderly Mildura relatives why they need a bit of new equipment; you might even have to drive over and set it up for them. But that doesn't mean there won't be many more similar conversations to be had in the future. That's what an ageing population means.

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Comments

    Wow, we're there already? This sounds like the subject for a special Mediawatch program: "Were you left in the dark when Mildura switched to digital?"

    With all the talk of the digital switch-over, it seems that internet-based tv has taken off recently. When my local channels became unavailable because of the conversion, I switched to all online tv viewing. This includes local programming, news, etc. I like the programs that aggregate all the channels and content into one place. Try seetvpc (dot) com. I've had it for a couple years.

    You're right, the key word is "confused". What are you trying to say? I expected to read a compelling argument as to why the analogue shut-off was irrelevant. I have re-read this article twice now and just can't find it.

    Are you saying that news content will be unchanged? If so, I think that is pretty obvious. One thing to note is ABC's 24 hour news channel coming on digital might offer more coverage... or not.

    I'm still waiting for decent reception (i get more reliable analogue signal than digital) before i buy a DTV tuner, i was looking forward to iiNet's internet tv, but they arn't providing FTA over the net.

    So when melbourne changes over if they haven't fixed it i'll lose most of my aussie tv shows that i cant get online and ill watch the rest of my US via other means as well.

    My only problem is SBS reception - it tends to be very spotty on the digital channels, while being fuzzy by just watchable on analog, and unusually affected by other electronics in the house. ie, turn on the PVR, sbs stops working. Unless you watch it through the PVR and not the TV. Other times, sbs will be not working, but if you turn on the xbox, it becomes crystal clear. And other rooms in the house (using the same wiring/antenna) get no sbs at all.

    In my situation, the analogue really is a backup for when the digital shits itself. So when they eventually get to switching analogue off over here, it may have some effect on me.

    Most likely would be fixed with a more expensive antenna, but who has money these days.

      This. Particularly the part about fuzziness. I hate when sparks and such seem to interfere with the digital channels. Especially when there's just a random dropout in the sound for a second or so, which usually likes to happen during key parts of dialogue.

      Also I particularly dislike how digital TVs always introduce latency to my gaming. I've gotta keep a trusty old analogue around so I can play my games lag-free :P

    I get really horrible digital reception. If the analogue would be shut off in my area today i would get 7 HD, and 7 TWO, and maybe 10 and one. Other then that everything only works on analogue

    Just shell out for a decent antenna and most problems will go away, watching tv on your new 1080 50 inch with a two dollar antenna installed by joe blow twenty years ago just makes no sense at all !

      True, but even though the 50" TV owners/viewers seem very prominent, the majority of households still have a relatively small TV of 20-30". Just because some are willing to spend big money on a TV doesn't mean everyone is.

      That said, my signal is fine. I installed my antenna last year but only hooked it up last weekend. Up until then I'd just been getting the signal from the unconnected coax.

      Not everyone can just upgrade their antennae though. What about people that live in rental properties? I can't see many landlords forking out for a new antennae just so people can have clear tv.

    I live right on the coast, and the winds, especially at night, get quite strong and often disrupt the digital signal. I then have to switch over to analogue so I don't miss out on whats happening. I'm not going to be happy when they turn it off.

    Not so fussed about the transmission, but still need an analog tuner in my TV until there is a cheap digital modulator available.

    And as far as I'm aware, Freeview doesn't mean much more than "no ad skipping allowed"?

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