Government vs Digital TV

The non-stop bombardment of PSAs, TV news and newspaper stories, scrolling banners and YouTube videos hasn’t been enough to get Americans off their collective asses and get prepared for the DTV transition that may or may not take place on Feb. 17. That was the date that all broadcasters were ordered, by law, to pull their analog signals off the air and only broadcast in digital, freeing up the unused bandwidth for emergency services and wireless carriers.

You’re ready, you made sure your family was ready, so what’s the freakin’ problem? After the jump, see the government’s excuses for why you and I must cough up more of our money to pay for this delay.

Your Tax Dollars at Work
In the bill to delay the switch from Feb. 17 to June 12, Rep. John Rockefeller (D, West Virginia) said, “The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right. We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong – and leaving consumers with the consequences.” That bill was approved unanimously in Congress, and shot down by Republicans in the house. Republicans countered with the argument that a delay will create even more confusion, cost consumers – you and me – more money to fund further educational and coupon programs, add costs to TV stations that would be powering and broadcasting both analog and digital signals, and hurt the public safety departments that are waiting for the analog spectrum to open up – one of the core reasons for the transition in the first place.

Who Else Will Pay?
It could be argued that TV stations were concerned about the loss of advertising “eyeballs” when some of their viewers wake up to static on February 18th, but the cost to continue airing both feeds is huge. One station will be spending $20,000 a month to continue running the analog feed. The nation is full of similar stories. One station has tower crews and construction workers waiting to build a new digital station the day after they shut off their analog station – February 18th, to be exact. The saving grace for these stations was a last-minute addition to the bill that would have given individual stations the option of going entirely digital, and yanking that analog signal off the air if they choose. If they’ve made the investment in digital equipment and are ready, they can go ahead and pull their analog feed to avoid the expense of running both.

The wireless industry also has a dog in this fight. While AT&T and Verizon are the biggest players, and they are both willing to go with a one-time delay, Qualcomm has problems. They paid over $550 million for part of the disputed spectrum that was supposed to be theirs on February 18th. The delay will cost them millions and millions of dollars. Who do you think will ultimately foot that bill? Go ahead. Who are their customers? Yup, people like you and me…lucky us.

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me
It was a moving target, but recent Nielsen numbers indicate that 5.7% of American households aren’t ready for the transition. That’s about 6.5 million people. But that number drops daily as people buy digital TVs, purchase a digital converter box that will allow an analog TV to view a digital signal, or switch to cable or satellite. Sadly, the majority of the unprepared masses are poor or minority households. This is strictly an over-the-air problem, so people who can afford satellite or cable TV don’t have to worry about a thing. It’s the folks who rely on a pair of rabbit ear antennas who have an issue. If people are confused now, imagine how confused they’ll be if a new date is introduced.

The government tried to help out people who couldn’t afford the digital converter box by starting a coupon program. Consumers could apply for up to two coupons per household for $40 off the purchase price. Converter boxes retail for about between $40 and $80. What went wrong?

Best Used By…
For some unknown reason, the powers that be decided that the coupons should expire 90 days after they’re sent out. An alarming number of people let their coupons expire, and once that happened, they couldn’t apply for another one. Currently, there is also a waiting list for coupons. Imagine that – a government backlog. However, there is still a huge proportion of the unprepared who haven’t applied for coupons at all. Maybe they don’t even watch TV. Those people do exist, or so I’ve heard.

I’m Just a Bill
There were different bills being tossed about on Capitol Hill. All talked about the June 12th delay, but had different approaches that could still be applied immediately, without causing the delay. One bill suggested extending the expiration date for all outstanding or upcoming converter box coupons to September 15th. I propose setting the date to February 17th. Just get off your butt and redeem the damn thing. Really. What are people who have the coupons waiting for? This bill is partly funded by funds recouped from expired coupons. How can government complain that consumers are unprepared when they have the coupons and are choosing not to use them? Another part of the bill allows for people to reapply for a coupon. Gotta ask – if they didn’t redeem them the first time, what makes you think they’ll redeem them now? The most recent bill that demanded a delay was just shot down by the House. Twenty days from now, the analog plug will be pulled.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Here’s how the transition should be handled, in a perfect world. It’s a harsh reality, but the poor people who aren’t prepared, unless they all miraculously win the lottery, will be poor on February 17th and still be poor June 12th. If they can’t afford the converter box now, they probably won’t by then. Of the backlogged and under-funded coupons that have been applied for, send out one per household, instead of two, just to get started. You waited until the last minute, so you just get one coupon. You snooze, well, you know. That takes away the argument that these unprepared households could miss important emergency notifications if they don’t have any functional TVs at all, which is ironic since part of the analog bandwidth is going to emergency systems. Get one coupon, so you can have one TV if that’s what you can afford, or buy a converter box without the coupon. Is free TV a right, or a privilege?

Instead of spending billions re-educating folks about a new date, the government should have used the data that determined which households are unprepared to target them specifically. “Hey you! Yes, you! You got twenty days. Get with the program and get a converter box. Now! Not tomorrow, bonehead – now!”

Our tax dollars have already paid out $134 billion to fund the coupons and create commercials to educate the public, and now we might have to pay even more. The Democrats who passed the bill in Congress are saying this isn’t the end. Pray that we don’t have to suffer through another four months of PSAs. Enough already! An extra few months isn’t going to make a difference. If people haven’t taken responsibility for their actions and done something by now, do you and I really have to pay for the delay? With Capitol Hill fighting for both sides, perhaps February 17th will come, and analog TV can peacefully pass into the night. May analog TV rest in peace. Amen.