The other digital-TV transition

As the cable industry ramps up its migration to digital TV, confusion mounts with some cable customers seeing basic cable channels disappear from their analog packages.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

As a cable customer, I thought I was immune to any problems related to the upcoming digital-TV transition. But I recently discovered that cable's own migration to digital-TV transmission also has its share of headaches.

Imagine my surprise last month when I turned on the TV in my bedroom to watch a rerun of Sex and the City to discover that TBS, which had been part of my basic cable package, was no longer viewable. I clicked a few more channels and discovered that TNT was also missing. In fact, all that I am now left with on this particular TV are the basic national networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, along with the public access station C-SPAN and WNET, my local public television station.

analog TV switch

I was annoyed to say the least. I live in New York City and subscribe to Time Warner Cable. I pay about $66 a month for my basic and expanded digital-cable service with a DVR-enabled set-top box in my living room, which I love. But in my bedroom, I was not willing to pay the extra $7 to $10 per month for a converter box. So I simply plug the cable into my TV, and I had been able to get at least a dozen or so channels of basic cable. But now it looks like my choices for even the very basic TV channels are shrinking.

When I first called Time Warner to inquire about what had happened, I was told by a misinformed customer service agent that my shrinking cable lineup was a result of the government mandated switch to digital TV.

This information was, of course, incorrect. The transition to digital for over-the-air TV broadcasters was mandated by Congress and has a deadline of February 17, 2009, when all broadcasters will transmit signals only in digital format.

But this broadcast transition to digital has nothing to do with the cable industry's switch to digital. In fact, for cable customers, the over-the-air switch to digital should have no effect on their service. Customers who subscribe to cable TV service won't have to get a digital converter box nor will they have to do anything else to their TVs in anticipation of the February 17 deadline.

That said, cable is also migrating to digital transmission. As a result, I discovered that some cable operators, such as Time Warner Cable, are moving channels from their basic analog tier of service to a more expensive digital tier that requires renting a digital set-top box.

While the Time Warner Cable spokesman I spoke to for this article, apologized for the misinformation I received from the customer representative, he defended the company's practice of moving some analog channels to digital.

"Like any business, we change our offering from time to time," said Alex Dudley, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. "Our customers won't have to do a thing when the over-the-air digital transition occurs in 2009. But we are also migrating some of our channels to a higher digital tier to make room for new services. And if customers want to receive those channels, they'll have to rent a box."

Suspicious timing?
Some consumer advocates say that the timing of these channel moves is suspicious considering it coincides with the broadcasters' transition to digital. A survey conducted in October by Consumer Reports found that about 19 percent of cable customers said they noticed in recent months channels in their basic cable package disappearing and moving to a higher tier.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, argues that cable's timing for moving channels off basic service to a higher tier service was done deliberately to capitalize on the confusion around the over-the-air TV broadcast digital transition. Despite the fact that there is nothing legally prohibiting the cable industry from moving channels into different tiers, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has opened an inquiry into this practice.

"The timing of these moves seems deceptive," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst at Consumers Union. "Many cable companies are doing this when consumer confusion is at its peak. Consumers essentially feel painted into a corner and are forced to choose between paying the same amount for less service or paying more to get the same service back."

But cable operators argue the timing is more coincidence than an underhanded attempt to squeeze more cash out of consumers.

"For us, this is purely a bandwidth issue," Time Warner Cable's Dudley said. "We need to move certain channels from our basic analog tier to digital to accommodate more HD channels. It has nothing to do with getting folks to upgrade their service, but it has everything to do with us remaining competitive by delivering as many HD channels as we can."

Indeed, Time Warner Cable, which is facing stiff competition from Verizon Communications' new Fios TV service, has added about 40 to 50 HD channels in the New York City market alone. The company hopes to offer about 100 HD channels by the end of the year in New York.

Like TV broadcasters and cell phone operators, which have also switched to digital transmission, cable is migrating to digital because it's much more efficient than transmitting using analog technology. This means that cable operators can free up more bandwidth to offer services like telephony, video on demand, and more high-definition TV programming.

Cable's transition to digital has been happening for over a decade. Some cable operators are much further along in their migration to digital than others. For example, Cablevision, which serves the New York metropolitan area, has converted about 90 percent of its customers to digital service. Nationwide about 60 percent of cable customers have already switched to digital, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry's trade organization.

So what is a consumer, such as myself, to do? Well, it looks like I have a couple of choices. I can pony up the extra $7 a month for another converter box and remote. Or I can get a digital converter box and an antenna to attach to my old TV and try to receive digital TV signals over the air. Digital TV over theair is free. And because more capacity is available via digital than was available with analog, many broadcasters have added additional channels of TV programming, which could mean that I would get even more channels than before.

While I may be tempted to take the over-the-air TV option, Time Warner's Dudley said the company isn't worried about massive subscriber defections to over-the-air TV.

"Cable offers a convenient way to ensure signal quality on your TV," he said. "We actually think that the customers we may lose to over-the-air TV will be offset by the new customers we sign up who don't want to deal with converter boxes and antennas."