Transition Time: The Digital TV That Cable TV Has Overlooked

Let’s say you’re the owner of one of the 20 million or so television households still taking in over-the-air signals on at least one set to get NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and independent TV stations, for local broadcasts.Conventional wisdom has it that you are going to have to do one of these things, to make sure you can still get programming from those networks and those stations come Feb.

Let’s say you’re the owner of one of the 20 million or so television households still taking in over-the-air signals on at least one set to get NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and independent TV stations, for local broadcasts.

tv

Conventional wisdom has it that you are going to have to do one of these things, to make sure you can still get programming from those networks and those stations come Feb. 18 of next year. That’s when all signals sent over the air must be in digits. That will render old-style rabbit-ear TVs, which take in analog signals, obsolete.

If you are holding onto one of those TVs, you will need to:

• Buy a digital-to-analog converter, for $40 or less. • Maybe a new antenna, if the digital signal is distant and you are past the “digital cliff” where you don’t see a station that you used to get, albeit fuzzily, in the analog age. • Subscribe to cable service or • Subscribe to satellite service, to avoid worrying about this altogether.

This, though, assumes that you’re holding on to your analog TV because you’re a Luddite that is adverse to new technology and has been resisting moving into the modern age of multichannel TV. Or, to put it another way, you’re a cheapskate.

So, let’s say you’re not a cheapskate, but just don’t want to subscribe to a TV service. Is there another alternative? You bet.

Your computer is a digital TV. Use it.

You may spend $120 or $162, instead of $40, to convert your computer into a TV. Here is what you could add to a:

Windows PCMacintosh

But you’ll be turning your computer not just into a TV, but a personal digital TV recorder, for the price. And pulling in HD signals, not just standard def TV.

Pretty good deal.

Particularly, if you’ve already got a PC with a 24” or larger monitor. Or a 24” iMac, on the Apple side.

Which could mean cable and/or satellite TV operators are missing a trick. Comcast co-founder Julian Brodsky is figuring that cable operators adding a million new subscribers during the transition is a “shoo-in.” And it’s not clear where TV service suppliers get another hit that big, once the transition is over.

The answer is this: By making their services available directly to computer users.

My 22-year-old son, Zachary, has just joined the work force, as a first-time technical consultant for Accenture, in Minneapolis. He gained his chops maintaining computer systems at the library at Washington University in St. Louis, where, formally, he was an anthropology and economics major.

Is he willing to spend his new-found bucks on a TV, for his apartment across from the symphony hall? No way. He finds his need for everything video sated wholly by viewing what’s on his laptop PC.

When he came across a few extra bucks, he didn’t spend it on a TV. A good coffee bean grinder was more important. The idea of buying a TV didn’t make much sense, much less the idea of subscribing to some kind of “premium” service, like cable or satellite TV.

So I carried out an experiment this afternoon. I tried to acquire a set-top box or a cable through my cable TV supplier that would let me view all its services, legally and at full price, over the 24-inch iMac on the desk in my home office. Shouldn’t be hard. My home office already gets its broadband Internet service and two phone lines from Cablevision Systems service. The coaxial cable jack that would connect my iMac to cable TV service is less than a yard from the back of the iMac.

But discussions with three Cablevision service representatives in a row yielded this final result: It’s “completely out of our scope” to connect an iMac to Cablevisions service, the third and final authority for the company said.

I was given an 800 number at Apple to call, to get rigged up.

Hmmm. Betcha I’ll get sold an AppleTV, instead of a digital TV box, if I do that.

Waddyathink?

Are cable operators missing the real digital TV opportunity? Shouldn’t Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox be figuring out, right now, how to hook up computers to their cable services?

Throwing in the towel to Apple, Microsoft, or even NetFlix and its Roku box makes no sense. Not when there are 81 million members of the Net Generation, compared to 77 million Baby Boomers.

Unless you think that the home computer will never become a serious TV.

Which makes one think of Kenneth Olsen of Digital Equipment Corp., who thought the home computer was a toy and could never undermine the “minicomputer” that was his company’s bread-and-butter.

May DEC rest in peace.

And may cable and satellite companies start offering one more digital TV alternative, right away: A hookup to your personal computer.

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