House OKs End Date for Analog TV, Poorest Households Set To Get Screwed

This is a story I’ve been following on the radioshow, though not so much on the blog. Monday the House passed a bill that sets Feb. 17 , 2009 as the date when your analog TV officially becomes obsolete, and all stations must broadcast exclusively in digital.

One of the big controversies, besides the transition date, has been how much money will be allocated to help households buy converter boxes allowing their analog TVs to receive digital signals. The Senate and House Democrats have been pushing for a bigger allocation, while House Republicans want less. This money will come directly from the proceeds resulting from the auction of broadcasters’ old analog spectrum, so, essentially, House Republicans want more of that cash for pork barrel.

The new compromise conerter box fund is $1.5 billion, which was agreed to by Republican negotiators from the House and Senate — note that Dems were left out of this one. Households can request up to two $40 coupons towards the purchase of converters, which are expected to sell for about $65 — no free ride for those who can’t or won’t buy new TVs.

And the ride may be even more expensive for cable TV subscribers who still receive an analog signal. The cable industry is disappointed that the House bill didn’t address their ability to downconvert stations’ digital signals to analog for their subscribers — primarily households who subscribe to “basic cable” which usually only includes around 13 channels, mostly local broadcast and public access. Cable companies may be allowed to downcovert local broadcasts, but they will have to negotiate that right individually with each broadcaster — they were hoping to get blanket approval from Congress.

Arguably, the poorest households are amongst those that only subscribe to basic cable and thus are those most at risk for losing some local channels–at least for a while–when they go digital in 2009. The poorest households most likely won’t be able to afford new digital TVs, and will have to hope they can score converter box coupons.

I’ve been reading about digital and high-definition TV since the late 80s — it’s certainly been on the wish list of videophiles for a long time. But I’ve also been torn about it. While I can appreciate the aesthetic improvement that high-definition brings to the table, I am doubtful about how much broadcasters will actually exploit this capability, and am also cynical about whether this improvement is worth the cost of transition to digital broadcasting.

Visiting friends and relatives, I’m often struck by how bad their TV picture looks, even with new sets. While the TV may be capable of a high quality picture, poor adjustment (like super high contrast and brightness settings), poor cabling and often just bad reception via antenna or cable TV add up to poor results. And it also seems like most people don’t care so much. It’s only wack-o middle-class videophiles like me who pay such close attention.

And the broadcasters know this. They know that high-def is great marketing, and certainly will bring the most affluent viewers on board, but they also know that the average household is going to see little real-world gain. What the broadcasters are in it for is the ability to squeeze more channels into their broadcast. In essence, they’re getting a 2, 3 or 4 for 1 deal, and viewers have no choice but to go along, paying for the privilege.

At this point it really doesn’t matter whether digital television is real improvement for viewers, and viewers have really never been given a voice in the matter. For employed middle-class guys like me, upgrading to a digital TV is more of a nuisance than a burden. But what about households worried about the next paycheck and next meal?

Sure, you can argue that TV isn’t necessary for life, and that maybe people would be better off without television. I certainly know many people who choose not to own or watch TV. But I don’t think such a choice should be forced on people. For all its ills, television is still an important communications medium, especially for people who, for whatever reason, don’t use the internet, newspapers or other media.

At its core, the digital TV transition is a handout to broadcasters and the electronics industry — a government-sponsored program forcing the entire country to buy new TVs and converter boxes so that broadcasters can squeeze more channels into their allocated spectrum. You might get a better picture for some programs, and you might get an extra channel or two of stuff that you’ll like and find valuable. But you might also just get some extra shopping and informercial channels, too.

This isn’t a luddite argument, and it’s not a rant against the idea of digital TV. Rather, the transition to digital broadcasts could have happened in any of a number of ways — even in ways that would have preserved analog broadcasts alongside digital for a longer time. But it happened this way for two reasons: one, the public was never consulted and, two, it increased the spoils for broadcasters (despite their whining), electronics manufacturers, and Congress.

In 39 months, when you have to shell out for a new TV or converter box, or have to pay more to your cable company to keep receiving the same channels, thank the NAB and Congress for your TV tax.

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