Reality Bytes: Getting Ready to Say Goodbye to Analog TV

On February 17, 2009, all analog TVs in America will go kaput. Turn on your trusty Zenith, and you'll get - static. Whack it as much as you want (and feel free to take out your frustrations), but it won't do any good. The TV set itself is still perfectly fine. It's the analog broadcast signal that's the problem. In particular, it won't be there anymore.

Blame the government. It's requiring all broadcasters to abandon analog TV transmission. Since it was the federal government that mandated conversion to digital TV - thereby instigating one of the greatest instances of technological obsolescence ever - it's willing to lend you a hand. Owners of the (very conservatively estimated) zillions of obsolete TVs can get coupons worth 40 bucks apiece toward the purchase of a converter box that will let analog sets display over-the-air digital broadcasts. To fund that program, Uncle Sam has set aside $1.5 billion - mere peanuts compared with the $10 billion he's getting for raffling off your spectrum.

The giveaway isn't need-based. Just ask, and ye shall receive - up to two coupons per household. Even if you subscribe to cable or satellite TV (and don't really need an over-the-air box), you can still ask for a coupon (maybe for that old TV in the guest room). This part of the program will be funded up to $990 million. When that money runs out, there's another chunk of $510 million waiting - reserved for households not connected to cable or satellite. Either way, don't wait too long: There are enough coupons to cover only half the TVs receiving over-the-air broadcasts.

You're probably asking, What the heck??? Why is the federal government massively subsidizing the electronics companies that make converter boxes? Instead of issuing millions of coupons that are just freebies for those companies, the government should take the $10 billion of auction money and give it back to the owners of the public airwaves: the public. Instead of huge profits for corporations, just give the $10B back to us. Let us decide what to do with the money; don't force us to buy boxes. Since the government is giving the public a spectrum-sized headache, each of us should at least get enough cash to buy some aspirin. Then we'll call it even.

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