The Brits say that within 10 years they could be able to fit a TV screen into a contact lens. My first thought on hearing this was that visits to London would be highly entertaining, a sort of reality version of the Three Stooges as you watched people jab themselves in the eyes while changing channels or the volume. But no, their killjoy scientists say the controls will work on voice commands. Actually, I can't imagine who would buy these things, except possibly MI-5, which could torture al-Qaeda suspects by forcing them to watch Benny Hill 24 hours a day.
The House of Representatives, which a couple of weeks ago refused the Obama administration's request to put off the conversion from analog television to digital, knuckled under on Wednesday and passed a bill that puts off the transition until June 12. Except it may not be that simple. The bill also says stations can go ahead and make the changeover before June 12 if the FCC gives the okay -- and the FCC says it may do that in some markets. In other words, we've gone from a firm, everybody-changes date to a nebulous, confusing mess that's under the supervision of one of the balkiest, slowest-moving bureaucracies in Washington. If this is the way telecommunications policy is going to be made at the Obama White House, it's going to be a long four years.
Color me surprised, at least briefly: The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday didn't pass a bill that would have delayed until June the conversion from analog to digital TV signals. The vote was 258 to 168 in favor of changing the date from Feb. 18 to June 12, but because its consideration was expedited, the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass. The Senate passed its version of the bill Monday night.
The question is, will the House stand by its decision? Remember, it also voted against the Bush administration's bank bailout last fall before caving a couple of days late when the White House waved some more goodies around. I suspect the Obama administration, which supports the delay, will try the same thing. Stay tuned.
Remember that Feb. 17 date for the switchover from analog television service to digital? Looks like you can forget about it. Barack Obama's transition team wrote to congressional leaders Thursday asking for (read: demanding) a postponement on the grounds that Americans need to be "educated" about the switch. All they really need to understand is that the switch won't affect them: 90 percent of U.S. households get their television via cable or satellite, which come pre-equipped with converters. Most of the rest watch little or no TV. But Congress has always been adept at creating crises where none exist, so count on the delay being enacted...maybe for months, more likely for years. During that time, television stations will continue to waste money and electricity running dual transmitters. Remember that the next time you hear anybody in the Obama administration or its congressional allies start spouting rhetoric about the need for green technology.
If your television set erupts into wavy color lines and voice-of-doom instructions to call a toll-free number Monday, don't worry -- it's not a nuclear attack or a space-alien invasion. It just means your set isn't ready for the switch to digital broadcasting signals scheduled for next year.
Preparing for the changeover, South Florida TV stations will move their programming to the new digital signal twice, for two minutes apiece, on Monday -- at 6:20 a.m. and 6:20 p.m. Viewers whose sets are digital-ready shouldn't notice a thing.
Meanwhile, the analog signal -- the one that will be shut down for good on Feb. 17 -- will carry only the warning message that directs viewers to a toll-free telephone number (1-877-388-5353) and a website (www.dtv.gov) for help.
Viewers who watch television using a cable box or a satellite dish (as about 90 percent of Americans do) shouldn't have to do anything to prepare for the switch to digital. But televisions connected only to antennas -- whether on the roof or the set itself -- must be hooked to digital converter to continue receiving signals after Feb. 17.
The analog-to-digital TV conversion that happens across the United States took place Monday on an experimental basis in Wilmington, N.C. The industry journal TV Newsday reports there were a number of problems with the digital converter boxes. Expect a lot of shrieking from idiots in Congress who specialize in crisis creation. But the most significant thing to emerge from the Wilmington experiment, as far as I'm concerned, is that there are 180,000 homes with television in the city and only a couple of hundred complained -- a minuscule percentage. The vast majority of people probably didn't even know the conversion took place because it doesn't affect anybody gets television through a cable or satellite system. The constant anguish from politicians, Luddite media activists and -- to be honest -- newspapers over this change is the phoniest scare story since Y2K.
Looking for a Christmas gift for that certain TV critic in your life? You can get an up-close look at the perfect present this weekend when Panasonic bring its High Definition Truck Tour to South Florida. No, idiot, the truck isn't high-def. (I thought this blog had smarter readers.) It's what's inside that's high-def -- a 103-inch plasma HD television set, the biggest in the world. That's the size of a queen mattress, for heaven's sake, and it costs a mere $70,000.
The truck is rigged with fancy sound and various HD accessories like camcorder so you can play around inside what Panasonic calls the ultimate HD environment. You might even take home some of the goodies for free: Panasonic is handing out $20,000 in HD gear as prizes to folks who stop by. The truck will be parked in the Brandsmart parking lot at 4320 NW 167th Street in Miami, from 10 to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 10 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. My favorite color is blue, by the way, but I'm not picky.
Last week, I wrote that NBC's 756 hours of high-definition coverage of next year's Beijing Olympics might be be the tipping point for HD television, turning it into the standard for American consumers. But HD took another big step just this week, with Direct TV's announcement of dozens of new high-def channels that give it a total of 72 -- with a promise that the number will rise to 100 by the end of the year and as many as 150 by March. Among the newest additions are the Cartoon Network, the Fox Business Network, FX, National Geographic Channel, HD Theater, A&E HD and Smithsonian HD.
Now the pressure will be on cable company's to match Direct TV's offering. And just like that, the principal reason not to buy an HD set -- the lack of programming -- will disappear. NBC's Olympic coverage will be the icing on the cake.
When you buy your first high-def television set, be sure to say thank you to the Chinese taxpayers who made it possible. China is spending an insane $40 billion on the summer Olympics in Beijing next summer, much of it to build new stadiums wired top-to-bottom with fiber-optic cable. The main beneficiary of that will be American TV viewers, who will get 756 hours of high-definition coverage of the Olympics -- nearly double the amount from the last summer Olympics in Greece. NBC Sports executive producer David Neal, speaking at an industry conference in New York Wednesday, predicted all that high-def coverage will be the tipping point for HD sets in America: "It will be a signature moment for the adoption of high-definition as a mainstream delivery medium for consumers," he said, predicting that more than half of all U.S. households will have high-def sets by the end of 2008.
More evidence that, within a couple of years, high-definition TV will be the standard: The new college sports channel Big Ten Network, which goes live Aug. 30, will air 85 percent of its schedule or more in HD. Imagine how cool it would have been to see Woody Hayes slap that Clemson linebacker in HD.