End Of An Era: NTSC Finally Goes Dark In America

A significant event in the history of technology happened yesterday, and it passed so quietly that we almost missed it. The last few remaining NTSC transmitters in the USA finally came off air, marking the end of over seven decades of continuous 525-line American analogue TV broadcasts. We’ve previously reported on the output of these channels, largely the so-called “FrankenFM” stations left over after the 2009 digital switchover whose sound carrier lay at the bottom of the FM dial as radio stations, and noted their impending demise. We’ve even reported on some of the intricacies of the NTSC system, but we’ve never taken a look at what will replace these last few FrankenFM stations.

If you are an American you may have heard of ATSC 3.0, perhaps by its marketing name of NextGen TV. Just like the DVB-T2 standard found in other parts of the world, it’s an upgrade to digital TV standards to allow for more recent video compression technologies and higher definition broadcasts. It has an interesting backwards compatibility feature absent in previous ATSC versions; there is the option of narrowing the digital bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, and transmitting an analogue FM subcarrier where the old NTSC sound carrier on the same channel would have sat. Thus the FrankenFM stations have the option of upgrading to ATSC 3.0 and transmitting a digital channel package alongside their existing FM radio station. It’s reported that this switchover is happening, with one example given in the Twitter thread linked above.

The inexorable march of technology has thus given better quality TV alongside the retention of the FrankenFMs. We have to admit to being sorry to see the passing of analogue TV, it was an intricate and fascinating system that provided a testbed for plenty of experimentation back in the day. Perhaps as we see it slip over the horizon it’s worth pondering whether its digital replacement will also become an anachronism in an age of on-demand streaming TV, after all it shouldn’t have escaped most people’s attention that in 2021 the good TV content no longer comes to your screen via an antenna socket. Meanwhile we’ll keep our CRTs running, just in case we ever want to relive a 1980s night in with a VHS tape of Back To The Future.

Header image: Mysid, Public domain.

76 thoughts on “End Of An Era: NTSC Finally Goes Dark In America

  1. “The inexorable march of technology has thus given better quality TV”

    Not in my area. Every broadcast TV station around here has MUCH worse quality than they had with analog TV.

    1. I have experienced this issue. It seems you could kind of put up with fuzzy analog TV signals. But digital just breaks up completely when you reach a noise threshold. You get a patchy checkerboard on the video and the auto starts to sound auto-tuned.

      That said, I get way more over-the-air channels after the digital switchover because the transmitters now have multiple sub-channels. That’s been pretty awesome.

      1. I get no over-the-air channels after the digital switchover. I live in an rf shadow at the foot of a mountain which sits directly between me and the mountain where the DTV transmitters sit. Line-of-sight can’t see me. A channel scan finds zero digital channels using any antenna I had available.

        The FCC map pretty much confirmed my findings, pretty much saying, “You Lose”. The builders/previous owners of the home (early 1980’s) put an antenna in the attic. Given the effort it must have taken to get it there, and conversations with neighbors, analog TV worked sufficiently.

      2. Fuzzy analog signal also often had readable closed captioning. a few odds or missing letters but readable. Fuzzy digital signal almost never have working closed captioning

    2. Couldn’t agree more!
      Digital TV is great if you live in close proximity to the transmitter, but behind a hill or a little bit too far away, and digital TV is just crap.
      Digital radio is exactly the same: at 30km (sorry to the American readers) my DAB radio goes patchy and simply annoys the sh!t out of me. I can get the same station (simulcast) on good old AM up to 100km away.

    3. Same for me. My DTV reception is crap despite the fact that I live only 7 miles from Manhattan. Our antenna cable does look a little bit frayed, but it passed analog signals just fine.

    4. I have had the exact opposite problem. I had patchy analogue coverage in the places I’ve lived. One apartment had multiple multi-story concrete buildings nearby, other was on a hillside; all of them could get NTSC broadcasts but the picture had reflection ghosts and would go from kinda recognizable to sound-only depending on cloud cover. The switch to digital started, and I could get every channel that switched by just using a UHF loop antenna. Local PBS got switched from UHF 15 down to VHF 3 and stayed analogue, so it went from a good picture to barely a picture and some sound.

      Added an old UHF amp that had been in the family attic, and everything has been clear since. Can’t get any ABC stations, the FCC moved them due to overlap; but I couldn’t get them before either. And now I have several stations from across state lines. They aren’t big four networks, and seem to be mostly Law & Order reruns, Sunday church services, and infomercials. And what I would have considered local broadcast stuff.

  2. “there is the option of narrowing the digital bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, and transmitting an analogue FM subcarrier where the old NTSC sound carrier on the same channel would have sat”

    For what purpose? What can tune an analog FM frequency that’s outside of the 88-108 MHz band of normal radio? And what information would it carry?

    Regardless, this sounds like another dumb option that lets broadcasters reduce picture quality. It’s bad enough that our “advanced” TV standard allowed the hideous hacks that have plagued us for generations (interlacing and fractional frame rates) to persist.

    1. TV channel 6 is 82-88 MHz. Many FM radios can tune just below 88 MHz down to 87.75 MHz where the audio subcarrier would be. That’s what this refers to. TV channel 6 is the only channel where this little trick works.

    2. 87.9 is part of the valid FM radio range in the US.
      87.75 is where TV channel 6 had its FM carrier.
      Every analog FM radio tuner could receive it. Most digital FM radio tuners could too.

        1. For a while, analog radios that tune the TV bands were available. People would just listen to television, not watch it. Compatibility with those radios is probably what this option is all about.

        2. It looks to me like this hacky definition is just for these channel 6 TV broadcasters, rather than redefining the FM radio range and making them go through the process of converting their TV broadcast license into a FM broadcast license.

  3. ‘good TV content no longer comes to your screen via an antenna socket’

    Umm… Better TV content comes from an antenna. It’s not compressed like cable TV, there is no delay. Watch both side by side and the difference is apparent. For sports it makes all the difference, esp. for hockey, with live TV from an antenna you can actually see the puck as opposed to cable where it’s just a blur.

      1. ah, yes the reader is at fault for failing to get the point, when you begin the paragraph referencing an improvement in the visual quality of TV, and then switch to making subjective judgement about the contents of the programming rather than the appearance.

      1. For sure, analog NTSC FM-modulated video over C-band satellite looked so good. Too bad it’s now history, for most satellite feeds on the C and Ku-band sats all went fully digital (to either DVB-S/S2, Digicipher II, or PowerVu) around the late 2000s, IINM. I believe C-SPAN is the only remaining full-time analog satellite feed on C-band, and I’ve heard that they’re going to discontinue it soon, if C-SPAN hasn’t already.

    1. Content like MeTV, CometTV, Heroes and Icons etc are heavily compressed and streamed in 480p to broadcast stations to send out on ATSC subchannels. Looks worse than olde VHS.

        1. In broadcast, picture quality will never be a priority in the majority of cases.

          Here is a little thought experiment that will explain why:

          Say you have two stations available to you. One of them is in great quality but it’s somewhat boring, and the other ones crappy, but compelling.

          Which one do you listen to or watch, and which one do you think a majority of people will give their attention to?

          The data is in, and the crappy one will win by a mile, and that’s why sub-channels are a thing, and quality is not.

    2. I mean, that just depends on your cable provider. Comcast notoriously broadcasts only 720p MPEG4 streams because they refused to use SDV

      I use AT&T IP TV now and it’s the an 8Mbps MPEG4 stream and looks better than the antenna channels on my 60″ 4K TV.

      When I tried Comcast last week just for shits, it was awful on anything above 42″.

  4. But NTSC was a retrofit. Analog tv goes back to at least 1939, 82 years ago, it was on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was broadcast, though very few had tv sets to receive it. But it built up, only to stall because of WWII.

    TV goes back further, but other schemes, and I’m not sure of exactly when the system in 1939 first started being used.

    So analog tv was around for a long time, color added, stereo added, extra information added. But all retrofits, having to work around the original standard. It lasted so long because nobody wanted to tamper with it.

    So DTV was a bold break, but after 70 years, a good time to reset.

    1. Cant think of many formats or systems that are still around that have been built on rather than scrapped in the technology arena. Maybe the XT IBM configuration thats just been added to over the last 30 odd years, is a good example.

    2. But it’s still hampered by hacks from the ’30s and ’50s (interlacing and non-integer frame rates). Blame broadcasters for spreading idiotic FUD about the progressive scanning that everyone else wanted.

    3. And now that we’ve got it working, ATSC 3.0 is going to break it again, after a mere 20 years. Both the signal and the encoding are going to change. Their legacy plan is to create single stations that multiplex all of the main networks in a market, in low definition.

  5. 400 channels of time shifted Simpsons re-runs is good TV? No thanks, I will stick with my digital HD OTA over streaming, satellite and cable any day. Love Island? Doctor P[h]ill? Sorry but I don’t think the content on any TV is worth paying for these days. At least on OTA you get 16 hours of non-time shifted cr@p.

    1. That would be the wonky 29.97 FPS rate. It’s an artifact of cramming the chroma sideband into the existing 6 MHz bandwidth allocated per US broadcast TV channel when color was added in the early 1950’s. Prior to the introduction of color, the frame rate was set at a 30 FPS for US TV.

      1. I’m sure Julian is aware of that. Their point wasn’t about the understanding of the original cause of that frame rate.

        Their point is that this (in theory) now-useless frame rate leaks into modern times and modern video and streaming formats on the internet and cannot easily be gotten rid of right now.

      2. And it should’ve been returned to 30 when analog TV was shut off. But here we are, with some video cameras not even being capable of shooting a true 24 or 30 FPS. Sad.

    2. This can be arranged, just move to Europe and enjoy a perfect 25 fps ;-) So much easier, so much better monochrome and colour resolution (625 lines and alternating colour phase) :-)

      1. The first time I went to Europe (1975), the 50Hz fluorescent lights, and the 25Hz TVs were flickering so badly, I assumed they were defective. Yet, locals couldn’t perceive the flicker at all; their brains had tuned it out. Ask me about “Hannover Bars”.

    1. I used to have a little box with RCA jacks for composite video, mono audio, and a 6″ or so wire antenna. It had a 9V power plug but could also take a 9V battery. It broadcast on UHF 14 and had a range of about one city block but could be picked up weakly up to two blocks.

    2. Low VHF (2-6) is bad for ATSC anyhow. There’s a channel 5 here (it used to be 2 back in the analog days) with a transmitter at the edge of the market area, and that just makes it worse. I can’t even get a hint of receiving it. (Yes, the antenna has VHF elements, it’s been in the attic since the ’70s.) It’s the only major station here I can’t receive that isn’t low power. (There are even some stations here where I can get them from two transmitters!) When I lived for a while in the next market over, I could barely receive it on Saturday mornings, then not at all.

      It will be interesting to see if anyone notices an analog signal from an RF modulator on 3 or 4. Probably the government will try to sell local use of those channels (54-88MHz) for non-television purposes.

  6. The one real reason to continue supporting direct-broadcast radio or TV is for emergency broadcasting. The Internet doesn’t really support that. In essence, you could almost make the claim that if the internet’s up where you are, then it’s not really an emergency (if you define emergencies as those that result in activating the emergency broadcast system).

    In that context, the big loss in the switchover from NTSC to ATSC is support for mobile reception. You can’t watch ATSC in a moving vehicle essentially at all (continuously variable multipath and doppler will do it in). And, of course, as with any digital medium, there’s almost no margin between “perfect” and “no” reception.

    ATSC enabled the first repack because it reduced mutual interference concerns between harmonically related channels. The most recent repack had a lot more to do with the Internet killing broadcast TV (it was an outright goal – the proposition to the TV stations was, “how much can we pay you to give up your license?”).

    1. I should amplify a little bit on the last point.

      The move to ATSC came along with reducing still further the UHF band down from channel 69 (it was channel 83 when I was a kid) down to 51.

      In other words, they didn’t do the digital transition for you. They did it so they could take 108 MHz of bandwidth away from the TV broadcasters.

      And last year they held a reverse auction to take away channels 38-51 (the top channel is now 36. Channel 37 was always and still is reserved as a radio astronomy window) – another 78 MHz.

      All of that bandwidth is now mostly cell phone bands (with some also being first responder / emergency services bands).

      1. Out of WWII, TV got a big slice of spectrum, and then a bit later, more when UHF was added. It wasn’t because there were stations on every channel, but because technical limitations of the day required lots of spacing between stations.

        There was limited activity above about 50MHz before WWII. The advances during the war made higher frequencies more viable. But tv kind of froze things, grabbing the “good” frequencies before much use or demand for higher frequemcies. So as new uses for radio came along, they had to be squeezed out of existing allocations. CB was initially at 450MHz, Too high to be useful, and technology too expensive to be cheap.

        Technology kept improving, and a lot of things placed much higher because the space was there. And with time, they saw all those UHF TV channels unused, so they slowly got reallocated.

        Mobile phones have existed since the late forties. But the very arrangement meant few users could use it, and cost was high. Cellphones are a way more efficient method, and now just about everyone has them.

        DTV was a leap forward, I get better reception and more channels, and clearing out the old meant reallocating the spectrum.

        1. 2 way radio systems used by businesses like construction companies where communication was needed with people all over a job site, or with large vehicle fleets, hit auctions for a few years as cell phones gained popularity. Cell phones were much more compact than portable radios, didn’t need to be installed and thus tied to vehicles, and no license fees for the RF bandwidth allocation, nor any waiting in an area for a frequency range to be freed up by a company getting rid of their system.

          Another money saving plus with cell phones is in most cases the employees would have their own phones.

          Between the phaseout of the 2-way radio and the ubiquity of cell phones was the FRS half-duplex radio, with handhelds the size of a small flip-phone. Limitations were range (unless everyone was up high with a clear line of sight) and everyone had to be on the same one of the limited number of channels so there was no security. Anyone could listen in simply by hitting their channel button until they got to one someone was talking on.

          A pair of FRS radios can still be of use in places like big box stores that are practically Faraday cages for cell phones. (I’m looking at YOU, Ontario, OR WalMart!)

      2. What made this possible was that NTSC couldn’t operate on adjacent frequencies in the same area, because it spilled over the edges of the 6MHz bandwidth. ATSC has a much tidier bandwidth profile that even let it operate on an adjacent frequency to NTSC. The cut from 69 to 51 basically lost no channel capacity because of this.

    2. The one real reason to continue supporting direct-broadcast radio or TV is for emergency broadcasting.

      NOAA Weather Radio—- It’s the smoke detector of the EAS world. I have 3.

        1. I bought two pairs of FRS walkie talkies for under five dollars each at garage sales. I bought the first set out of curiosity, the second because the first had the weather channels built in (so did the second).

          A cheap way to get it.

    3. You know just for grins, I did that once. I have a laptop, with one of those capture cards, and that short little antenna with the magnetic base. I opened laptop dude in a sports game stuck the antenna on the roof of the car and listen to all the way home. And when I would glance over the picture wasn’t bad.

    4. “The Internet doesn’t really support that. In essence, you could almost make the claim that if the internet’s up where you are, then it’s not really an emergency (if you define emergencies as those that result in activating the emergency broadcast system).”
      Satellite connectivity like Starlink is a very resilient network, about the only kind of natural disaster they’re vulnerable to would be solar storms.

      Perhaps what we need is a long range P2P communications network based around LoRa?

  7. End of an era.

    That said, I am not sure of the ‘point’ of TV anymore (we don’t have it). You can get your news and entertainment over the internet now at ‘your’ convenience… Skim the news at a glance. Read what you want to read… Saves time. Also look at what you want to see as far as movies and such on the entertainment side…. Not what the network wants you to see at ‘set’ times…. I don’t see the ‘value’ here is for TV.

    1. It may come as a great surprise to some here, but not everyone is your age and of your particular persuasions. Fact is, there is still a large portion of the population, both in the US and around the world, who don’t have the luxury of a fat internet connection or a bank account to pay for the data service necessary to stream or download video content or the technological inclination or aptitude needed to do so. Multiple ages and socioeconomic demographics all continue to find value in over the air TV, and this is born out by the vast sums of money advertisers continue to happily pay to get their products in front of people’s eyes.

      The efficiencies of broadcast vs narrowcast are also undeniable, even as new hybrid models emerge to leverage the benefits of both. Fiberoptic backbones continue to be major points of failure in data networks, and yet most broadcast services are still there to provide news and entertainment to anyone who tunes in, and at no charge. It’s going to be a while yet before that model goes toes-up.

    2. The sad fact is that broadcasters are working hard to ensure their own extinction. They should be streaming their content 24/7 on their own sites, but they don’t. It’s incredible. But then these are the same morons that sued Aereo for attempting to rent people antennas to receive broadcast stations via IP, at no cost to broadcasters and providing them with a wider audience that increased the value of their programming to advertisers.

      Thus an antenna and OTA broadcaster IS useful. Try finding even a full news broadcast online; I think NBC is the only one that does it, and the quality of their reporting isn’t exactly great.

  8. Does that mean providers will FINALLY drop low-definition resolution and go -all- HDTV? Or do I have to keep hearing them lie that HDTV still deserves “premium” status over basic (low-resolution) cable?!

    1. No, the DTV standards include a crap standard like MeTV on your local station etc. A cable can have just about anything they want to put on that. Want do you want? More channels or “higher quality”, more will always win.

    2. Does that mean providers will FINALLY drop HD resolution and go -all- UHDTV? Or do I have to keep hearing them lie that UHDTV still deserves “premium” status over basic (HD) cable?!

      Yeah we’ve already moved on….

  9. Digital TV sucks reception is short-range if you’re anywhere in any low-lying area even if you’re within 10 mi of a transmitter you will not get a signal I live in the Providence Rhode Island area and I’m able to get four channels even with an outside directional antenna.

    I am 65 I used to live in the northern region of Michigan and used to be able to get television signals all the way from Green Bay Wisconsin on an analog signal couldn’t do that today was a digital signal if my life depended upon it.

  10. analog broadcast tv may have gone dark, but my 1977 toshiba blackstripe still goes strong with a series of adapters…and it has more personality than these black box lcd tvs!

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