Don't Get Me Started: No TV Left Behind

Recently, UAV contributor Michael Fremer sent me a copy of an e-mail containing an e-discussion he was having with Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The topic of their e-conversation was a petition by the Consumers Union (CU), a non-profit organization that publishes Consumer Reports. The gist of the petition is given on their Web site:

You may not know it yet, but your TV could soon go dark.

Congress is getting ready to take up legislation that would set a firm date for all television signals to switch from the analog signal you receive now to an all-digital one. Yet, nearly 85% of Americans do not have a TV capable of receiving this new digital signal. Some consumers could wind up having to buy a brand new TV or a set-top converter box (estimated cost of at least $50 each).

Congress is in the process of deciding who should pay for the switch—consumers or the government. The government will also auction off the channels that are currently used for local TV broadcasting, potentially earning billions of dollars on the sale. Importantly, these funds could be used to compensate consumers who will be harmed by the switch to digital TV.

Tell Congress that consumers shouldn't have to bear the financial burden for the transition to digital TV!

As of June 19, over 10,000 people have e-signed the petition, and many have included comments such as, "The switch to digital TV should be voluntary, not forced." "We pay enough. Why change something that is working? Just leave it alone." "I have a good TV and am on fixed income—can't afford the converter." "This country's citizens are not ready to go all digital TV. We still have analog TVs and feel it is very unfair to FORCE us to have to replace them with digital TVs. This is an expense that would be a financial burden to many. Please do not vote for this." "This legislation would isolate segments of the population who have trouble paying food, health care, and rent bills! The elderly, the disabled, the poor would be marginalized and isolated even further than they are now. Free TV is essential to a successful democracy. Vote NO on switching to digital TV."

Unfortunately, the CU petition is quite misleading in its attempt to strike fear in the hearts of consumers, many of whom are reacting by rejecting the whole idea of DTV. First of all, it's important to realize that, while it may be true that 85% of Americans are not capable of receiving DTV directly, less than 20% of the 285 million TVs in the US are actually used to receive analog TV broadcasts over the air. (The CEA claims it's around 11%, while the National Association of Broadcasters [NAB] cites the Government Accountability Office's figure of 19%; see related news story.) In any event, the vast majority of American televisions receive analog TV via cable or satellite, not over the air, and those services will not be affected by the impending cutoff.

Still, that leaves 34 to 54 million US televisions being used to view over-the-air (OTA) analog broadcasts exclusively, which represents between 13 and 20 million American households (based on data from Nielsen Media Research that shows there are 109.7 million television households in the US, each with an average of 2.6 TVs). And, as indicated in some of the petitioners' comments, many of those TVs are used by the poorest members of our society.

On the other hand, the government is eager to complete the transition to DTV sooner than later and shut down all analog OTA broadcasts in order to free up that spectrum for other uses. In particular, they want to sell slices of the spectrum to generate revenue. How much revenue? Estimates vary wildly, from as little as $9 billion to as much as $30 billion.

What would they do with all that money? Aside from filling the widening federal budget deficit, some lawmakers (and many consumer advocates) propose that some of the revenue be used to subsidize set-top boxes that convert DTV signals to analog for the televisions that the poor now use to watch analog OTA broadcasts.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, addressed this issue at the HDTV Summit in Washington, DC, last March (see related story). According to Fremer, who attended the event, Barton said he was working on legislation that would establish a "hard" cutoff date for analog OTA broadcasting and would include subsidies to provide converters to those who need one but can't afford to buy one.

Then, in late May, news stories started to appear reporting that Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) had indeed introduced draft legislation that would require broadcasters to vacate the analog spectrum by December 31, 2008. This would supercede existing law, which assures that analog OTA broadcasting will not be shut down until 85% of all households can receive digital OTA signals; clearly, that's not going to happen in the next three years. Amazingly, the Barton-Upton legislation includes no provisions for converter subsidies; apparently, he has changed his tune, perhaps assuming that his comments at the HDTV Summit would be forgotten.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) announced last week that his staff was preparing a DTV-transition bill to put on President Bush's desk by the end of the year. But Stevens was trumped when Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) introduced actual legislation on June 14 (see related news story), setting a hard cutoff date of January 1, 2009.

When he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain had tried to introduce a similar bill, calling it the SAVE LIVES Act. That acronym is certainly a whole lot better than what it stands for: the Spectrum Availability for Emergency Response and Law Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act. The point of this name is to emphasize the importance of freeing up the analog broadcast spectrum for use, in part, by emergency personnel. McCain believes that if additional bandwidth had been available for first responders on 9/11, there would have been fewer casualties that dreadful day.

Of course, there wouldn't be much revenue from that application, but after allocating parts of the spectrum for emergency use, there would still be plenty left over to sell to the highest bidder. The current bill calls for an auction no later than April 30, 2008, with the proceeds going into the US Treasury no later than June 30, 2008.

Whereas the Barton-Upton legislation is quite vague with few specifics, the McCain-Lieberman version is chock full of details, including a converter subsidy—though it's been reduced from $1 billion in the previous version to $463 million plus administrative costs. This amount is expected to cover converters (at $50 each) for 9.2 million low-income households (as defined by the GAO) that receive their TV signals over the air.

Both CEA and NAB quickly issued statements in support of the SAVE LIVES Act. In addition, NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television Stations (MSTV) announced that they "intend to pursue development of a prototype high-quality, low-cost digital-to-analog converter box for terrestrial digital television reception." They plan to solicit proposals from the consumer electronics industry to build a working prototype converter by the end of the year.

That's all well and good, but CEA's Shapiro wonders what the big deal is. As he said in a statement, "This publicity stunt is novel considering that no one before has suggested any problem with creating a relatively simple digital-to-analog converter box. The issue is market demand. No one sells the product in the US today as most local broadcasters do not have full-power HDTV broadcasts and only 11 percent of TV sets are even used to receive over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting." He went on to say, "We suggest broadcasters focus their resources on promoting OTA broadcasting, rather than trying to confuse the situation and delay a cutoff date."

Indeed, even McCain accused NAB of dragging their feet on relinquishing the analog spectrum. "Why they would not choose to act in the public interest is something they'll have to answer for," he said during his introduction of the bill on Tuesday.

For me, the bottom line is this: will low-cost converters be readily available by the time the cutoff occurs, will the appropriate consumers be informed that they need one, and will those who can't afford one get help from the government? If so, no one need be left behind in the transition to DTV, and no one's TV will "go dark" after the cutoff, especially if the subsidy is a direct giveaway rather than a rebate. There are millions of people who can't afford to front even $50 and wait who-knows-how-long for the government to reimburse them, and their numbers are growing rapidly thanks to the economic policies of the Bush administration.

If converters are not given to the poor, the least-powerful segment of society will become even more disenfranchised, with no access to televised news and information that directly affects their lives. The digital divide between the haves and have-nots will widen even farther—which may not matter to the government, since the poor don't vote, so politicians can easily ignore them.

I believe that, as technology changes, it's better for everyone to be included, and the government used to think so, too; after all, they paid for rural electrification in the 1930s and for interstate highways in the '50s. Today, they need to help traffic move just as fairly across the airwaves. Unlike the implementation of Bush's education policy, I urge the government to fully fund a new program: No TV Left Behind.

Thanks to Joanna Cazden for her invaluable help with this essay.