Digital Television's Coming of Age

America is a nation of tech geeks. An iHome wakes us up. GPS drives our cars. A Batman utility belt full of cellphones, Blackberries and PDAs hugs our waists. YouTube entertains us and a sound machine lulls us to sleep as it simulates the natural music of the outdoors.

We take pride in every bit of space-age technology we own. Yet when it comes to our television sets, we've quietly rooted ourselves in the realm of technology past. Think about it: From Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to President Bush, all of our presidents have communicated with America using the same broadcast technology — analog television.

Throughout those six decades however, the world changed — World War II ended, Martin Luther King Jr. marched, the suburbs swelled and a new millennium was welcomed. But TV, the way we primarily watch the world, did not.

Since Congress passed the Federal Communications Commission requirement that broadcasters nationwide shut off their analog signal, many companies have jumped in to help ease the stress and hassle of this change. Since then, Americans have heard or seen the industry's public-service announcements on over 11,000 radio stations and countless billboards, buses and subways across the country. They have experienced it in town hall meetings, workshops and events. Cable operators, for example, have pledged to run public-service TV advertising valued at $200 million dollars to help educate Americans.

But is everyone truly prepared?

On Sept. 8 at noon, Wilmington, N.C., becomes the first DTV test site in the country, to transition away from the outdated, analog technology and usher in the cleaner sound and clearer picture of digital. From that time on, the area's over-the-air channels (3, 6, 10, 26 and 51) will only be broadcast in digital. The rest of us will have to wait until Feb. 17, 2009.

Though it looks as if we're approaching the home stretch of this transition, and it appears the communication campaigns surrounding it have been successful, there is still work to be done.

In an independent nationwide public opinion poll sponsored by Retirement Living TV, 86% of adults said they were aware of the upcoming change. The survey revealed nearly one in four of respondents age 65 and older were unclear about the transition's effect on their television sets. Getting a full 85% of seniors to adjust to the transition may sound like an astounding achievement, but that 15% gap is nearly double the national average.

In the coming months, those individuals who own an analog television have a few choices to make. First, they can simply replace their analog television with a digital tuner. Second, they have the option to purchase a service such as cable or satellite TV. Finally, they can fit their analog television with a digital-to-analog converter box. All of which require action that needs to be taken now, well in advance of the change and not at the last minute.

This is not the time to take a wait and see approach, especially in the case of Wilmington. We must address the groups that are still struggling through the digital divide — including seniors. The true test of a successful campaign is not only hearing the message, but taking steps to adapt.

By any measure, a growing number of seniors are becoming technologically savvy. Silvers are surfing the net in record numbers. But the “greatest generation” is still more likely to own older, analog televisions that receive only over-the-air broadcasts.

They also get their information from much different sources than other adults do. For instance, a simple and effective way to contact a mass amount of people is through the Internet. Yet, 57% of seniors have never used the Internet, according to the Retirement Living poll, which also addressed Internet access and usage. As such, they have been disproportionately affected by the transition, challenging us to work harder for them throughout the upgrade process.

Embracing new technology helps bridge the gap between a generation who listened intently to FDR on radio and one whose second language is spoken on a QWERTY keyboard. The transition to digital television isn't about simply adding another piece of technology to our technology-filled lives, though. Digital television drives America into the next chapter of technology and communication, opening up air space for emergency situations while improving the product a consumer receives.

There is no denying every innovative development or major transition creates challenges that hinder its acceptance. As such, we all have a vested interest in what happens as all Americans, starting with Wilmington, transition into a new phase of technology — digital television.