MediaPost Media Magazine

by Steve Smith

As television leaps into the digital storm, will the blizzard lead to a blackout?

On paper, at least (although many of you aren’t even reading this on paper), February 17, 2009 should mark a distinct milestone in the digital revolution. On the day the FCC requires television broadcasters to turn off their analog signals and move exclusively to digital transmissions, the defining medium of the last half of the 20th century will join a technological transformation that has disrupted the music industry, shaken newspapers, redefined retail and shopping patterns and fundamentally changed our media habits.

This should be a big deal, shouldn’t it? When the biggest and best financed media kahuna finally leaves waveforms behind, isn’t that the great tipping point, the moment we move decisively from the analog age of broadcasting to the digital future of personalized, mashable media or multi-cast, interactive programming? Well, maybe not so much.

For most Americans, and even for the TV industry generally, 2/17/09 will be a feint in the long, thoroughly unpredictable reorientation to digital that has taken decades to show its true impact in other platforms. Unlike the great political upheavals, the digital revolution is a protracted affair; there are no emperors to depose and no Bastilles to storm.

After the introduction of the compact disc in the mid-’80s, it took almost 20 years for all the elements of digitization in music to assemble and undermine the industry. It took a decade after the emergence of broadband for search and social networking to evolve as the new engines of media distribution. And major fiefdoms in the media nation remain decidedly, stubbornly analog. In going digital, television is unlikely to follow any set schedule or pattern for digitization, except that it will join the other platforms in entering an abyss of unpredictable change that likely will occur over the next decade in fits and starts. And it will start with a jerk.

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