Government mandating digital television

While broadcasters dithered, he says, technology and the computer industry zipped by them.The Internet began to develop, and personal computers, "smart" phones and mobile devices, not TV sets, became the household's technological hubs. "The content evolved and [consumer] behavior changed.But then two things happened: Broadcasters became intrigued by emerging digital technology, and HDTV began to seem like an increasingly expensive proposition.So industry lobbyists went back to Congress in the mid-1990s and asked for flexibility.The possibilities began to seem endless: "Instead of 'Good Morning America,' think of 'Good Morning, Diane,' " with customized headlines and video clips and "special interests, downloaded to your TV at night," MIT futurist Nicholas Negroponte theorized in an interview with the trade magazine Electronic Media in 1997.Negroponte, an adviser to the broadcast industry's chief lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, had plenty of other ideas for digital broadcasts: interactive chats with famous people, "on-demand" pay television services (which cable wound up offering, but broadcasters never did), even cellphone service via the local TV stations' digital broadcast towers. Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, told a congressional panel that digital signals could someday be subdivided so that one part of a region received news of local interest while another part of the region saw its "own" newscast.

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[TV stations] missed the whole thing." Hundt says the lesson for broadcasters is the same one that the nation's troubled newspapers and auto companies are learning: Failing to innovate and capitalize on changing markets isn't just a lost opportunity -- it can be a death sentence.

"Broadcasting had a heck of a run for 50, 60 years," he says.

Long before local TV stations reached their digital finish line, cable and satellite TV companies were already showing viewers what digital TV looks like: widescreen, high-definition pictures and crisp sound, multi-hundred-channel lineups, with movies and TV series "on demand." A decade ago, broadcasters said they were going to offer all that and even more. The journey from analog to digital broadcasting has been long and convoluted.

Starting in the late '80s, TV stations and their broadcast network partners lobbied Congress to award them new channels free of charge.

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