Tuesday, January 13, 2009

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.


At 12:17 AM, Anonymous jheartney said...

On the "takings" issue (the idea that the government has destroyed the value of private property and should compensate the owners), I should think the monetary value involved is fairly low, since the current resale value of old analog TV's is next to nothing.

I agree with the commenters linked to in the post who note that this transition has been in the works for a VERY long time, and that postponing it simply guarantees the same issues will arise the at the time of the next transition date, with the added problem that hard transition dates become less credible every time they are postponed.

I had not been aware of the problems with TV stations having given up leases on transmission towers, or that they have budgeted for eliminating analog transmission costs, though all that makes sense as I hear it. In addition, the new owners of the soon-to-be freed spectrum would need to be compensated if they can't use it yet. All in all I don't think delaying right now is a good idea.

I'm not sure how useful it'd be to provide tax breaks for antenna setup costs; I should think a fair amount of the money might go to people who could and would be able to afford new antennas anyway (and besides, nobody gave me a tax break for the antenna I put up two years ago). For truly impoverished consumers, antenna tax breaks aren't likely to help much as their effective tax rates are very low, and in any case if they are renters, they may not have the opportunity to put up an outdoor antenna.

At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole transition has been mismanaged. The government should have required ATSC tuners in all TVs years ago, As it stands, there are perhaps a few million sets out there that are only 2 or 3 years old and are analog-only. Had they mandated digital tuning sooner, there would be far fewer analog sets that need converters.

Second, the PSAs and other P.R. are woefully inadequate. You, and other technically-minded folks (as well as basically non-techie TV geeks like me) read all the articles and have enough of an understanding of how OTA TV works in general to comprehend the issues involved in the transition. The average viewer, who doesn't know anything except how to turn on the magic box and watch it, are not getting the full story from these PSAs. If they were honest, they would include disclaimers such as "Some viewers may lose some stations they presently receive; others may gain stations. In some cases, a better antenna may be required to maintain all your current stations." (It also wouldn't hurt to emphasize the difference between DTV and HDTV, which most laypeople still don't get.)

Your point about the economy is well-taken. Many folks are now ditching their cable or satellite connections -- not by choice, but because they can no longer justify the monthly bills. These folks are even more uninformed and ignorant about the whys and wherefores of the transition, because up until now they didn't think it was relevant to them.

I say, a modest delay (3-4 months), plus additional funding for the CECB program, plus HONEST and COMPLETE information for the public would probably be a good idea.

As for the stations, a handful of which have already ditched analog, and others that have issues of expiring tower leases, aging analog equipment, and failure to budget for running two transmitters past February...well, I don't know how to address those issues if there is a delay.

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The government should have required ATSC tuners in all TVs years ago, As it stands, there are perhaps a few million sets out there that are only 2 or 3 years old and are analog-only. Had they mandated digital tuning sooner, there would be far fewer analog sets that need converters."

Um the government DID mandate this


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