Voices In Opposition
There's 35 days to go to the analog shutdown - or is there?
When I started this blog nearly three years ago, one of things I wondered about the most was if or when we would begin to see signs of real opposition to the change. I never discounted this possibility, largely because I know a lot of people who have no particular interest in DTV and their opinion at the time I started out was that this date would surely be pushed back once again. As time went on it seemed they were being proven wrong. Though occasionally you would see a site such as stopsnow.rccrg.info which would urge slowing things down if necessary to ensure that the poor and the old are not left behind, they didn't seem to be having much visibility or presence.
Then came the first early transition (Wilmington, N.C.) and word that call centers were flooded with thousands of calls despite extensive handholding by the government (including the giving away of large numbers of converter boxes). Many of these calls concerned reception problems, and helped to raise awareness of the fact that many digital stations may end up with a smaller reception area than their analog predecessors. Still, there were no reports of widespread public outrage, and we have to assume that in the end people made the adjustments that had to be made (possibly including a new antenna) or decided instead that continuing to receive TV just wasn't worth the additional effort and expense.
In the meantime, however, awareness of these reception problems has been growing (check the comments section of this article.) Anecdotally, I've been noticing more and more comments of that type in local (non-videophile) bulletin boards and from people I know. This problem in itself might not have led to a rethinking of the deadline, but then came another major stumbling block - the coupon program ran out of money and more than a million people signed up for the program's waiting list within a few days (with hundreds of thousands of new requests coming in daily). Apparently the accelerating fiscal downturn has made more people opt for a converter (as opposed to a new TV) than the program's designers could have envisioned back in pre-recession days. While new money will be released as older coupons expire, the rate of requests currently is far greater than it was 90 days ago, so you can see where this trend is headed.
And apparently this was enough to start the ball of reconsideration rolling. On Wednesday, January 7th, Consumer Reports urged the government to delay the transition, followed in quick succession by the Obama transition team, two ex-FCC chairs, and at least three of the four major networks (with CBS being "open to the suggestion").
Committed transition supporters, were, to put it mildly, not amused by any of this, as you can see from reading the comment sections on these posts. Collectively, they express exasperation bordering on contempt for those who are at risk for being left behind, apparently convinced that this is all about lack of awareness rather than lack of resources or anger over having spent their money only to get less coverage than they had before. Perhaps it's not so surprising that a sample drawn from people who frequent technology websites might have a little trouble accepting that there actually are a fair number of people out there for whom paying full price for a converter (or a new antenna) might have an effect on whether their kids get new clothes this winter.
The point is also raised that there is no constitutional right to have television in the first place. But perhaps those who say so should take a moment to consider this from an eminent domain perspective. Millions of Americans paid their money for a device that still works perfectly well (an analog TV), and may do so for decades to come, for the specific purpose of watching broadcast television. Now a government mandate has rendered that core functionality worthless, degrading the value of their property. When the government takes your property (let's say they need your land for a new freeway off-ramp) you are owed fair compensation. Why should the same principle not apply when the government makes your property less valuable?
But there are more substantial objections to changing everything so close to February 17. Since April the government has been pounding out the message that this change is going to take place on a certain date, and the potential for mass confusion is very real if this happens not to be the case (who wants to write the next series of PSAs?). And though the networks appear to be OK with this, their local affiliates may not be, having made their plans to stop leasing transmission towers (which leases now may be too late to extend) as well as having redone their budgets to include the substantial electricity savings they've been counting on achieving, as Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association points out. And then there's the public safety agencies (AKA first responders) who have been counting on spectrum in the 700Mz band (so perhaps we should exempt at least that slice of spectrum from any delay). Not to mention the companies who have ponied up $20 billion for the rest of that spectrum. How long before we have to give that money back?
What, then, is the best outcome, or the least bad one in any case? My own hope is that the threat of this delay will cause a rapid unblocking of coupon distribution (and that all expired coupons be made usable again). In addition, with all the money we are plunking down for economic stimulus and financial stabilization, perhaps it wouldn't be too crazy to offer a direct tax credit for monies spent out-of-pocket (on converters and antennas alike) by consumers to restore this basic function to their TVs, one of the only forms of affordable entertainment for millions of Americans, and often a main source of companionship and connection for the sick and the elderly.
One more thing. If this date moves, what happens to the schedule for this blog? Until the date actually moves (or seems very likely to do so), I will keep "counting down". But whether we go with this date or another, the tightening of focus I adopted recently remains in effect. If you look in the "Blogroll" section on the left, you will see some good resources for HD coverage. From now on, the broadcast transition story is the only one you'll read about here.