The federally mandated switch to all-digital broadcast television has been a mess from the start.
Although the transition is being hailed as the biggest advance in over-the-air TV since the advent of color, it has been driven more by self interest, which is to say the telecom cartel and companies manufacturing and selling digital sets and converter boxes, than because of any pressing need. Analog TV pictures are perfectly satisfactory, and while digital images and sound are indeed an improvement, they certainly don't compare to the quantum leap from black and white to color.
Having mandated a massive, costly and problematic switch from something that wasn't broken and arguably didn't need fixing, government has now thoroughly botched things.
The consumer-help program that offered free converter boxes for people who would be unable to receive digital broadcasts after the February 17 changeover is broke, and if the DTV switchover comes off as scheduled your elderly Uncle Leo and Aunt Iris and an estimated 7.7 other million households that rely on roof antennas and rabbit ears won't have to look outside to see if it's snowing because that's what they will be getting on their TV screens instead of weather and emergency broadcasts, let alone regular programming.
* * * * * It wasn't supposed to be that way.
Although the transition was first proposed way back in 1996, Congress decided in 2005 to require all TV stations to broadcast only in digital ostensibly to free up valuable airwaves for public safety use and wireless Internet access in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. That altruism was, of course, illusory. The driving force for the switchover was trying to shrink and out-of-control federal deficit by raking in billions from telecoms that would bid for digital rights.
The government took in $19.6 billion last year by auctioning existing analog airwaves to telecoms for use after the switchover, but Congress in its infinite wisdom allocated less than $2 billion to educate consumers about the transition.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a little known Commerce Department agency, kicked in $1.5 billion to provide households with up to two $40 coupons each to purchase converter boxes but announced last Monday that the program had run out of money. As it is, the agency has a waiting list of about 1.1 million requests, which can be filled as unused coupons reach their 90-day expiration. About 13 million of the 41 million coupons mailed out have expired so far.
Some 19 million coupons have been redeemed, but those 7.7 households (some 6.6 percent of the national total) that rely on antennas and rabbit ears are unprepared for the conversion and face the prospect of paying full price for converter boxes -- or watching their TVs go blank.
(People with cable, satellite or phone company TV services will continue to receive broadcast stations. Every TV set made before 1998 has an analog receiver, but if you bought a big-screen or projection television between 1998 and 2004 there is a chance it has a built-in digital tuner. Since 2004, all sets include digital tuners.)
Many of the households that are stuck in the analog age are elderly, poor and rural, but not all. According to the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, a surprising 21.5 percent of homes in that state still use rabbit ears.
There also are problems beyond the coupon program, notably something called the "cliff effect." Unlike analog signals, digital broadcasts come in clear or don't come in at all, meaning that people who currently get fuzzy reception may lose that reception entirely.
Many people who think they are prepared for the analog shutoff could lose some channels -- or possibly even lose reception entirely -- unless they purchase a new antenna.
That's because many stations will shift their broadcast footprints with the switch to digital by changing transmitter locations, antenna patterns or power levels.Affected viewers will likely need more powerful antennas in addition to converter boxes to maintain their existing reception. Yet the government has done too little to educate consumers about this problem and is not subsidizing the cost of an antenna, typically between $75 and $150. Not exactly small change in the depths of a recession.
* * * * * Barack Obama faces challenges more daunting than any incoming president since FDR, but there he was on Thursday asking Congress to postpone the February 17 switchover, which certainly was not on his pre-inauguration radar screen, in order to give the government time to clean up its mess. Consumers Union also called for a delay "until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals."
The issue has, of course, become a political football with some Republicans claiming that Obama is needlessly concerned and all Congress needs to do is make small fixes to the program. If that's the case, the minority party can show some moxie by leading the way to quick-fix legislation that will be on Obama's desk on January 20.
But it is unclear whether any postponement request will be granted. Broadcasters that had initially resisted the transition have poured billions into it and now enthusiastically support and are eagerly pushing the changeover with countdown clocks and other promotions, while public safety agencies and those telecoms are eager to start using the converted and new digital airwaves.
Then there are techheads, who you can bet don't give a crap about Uncle Leo and Aunt Iris but have the latest and greatest in digital gadgetry, who are shocked -- just shocked -- that the world's supposed technological leader would renege on the transition, comparing it to ditching MP3 files and bringing back vinyl records.