For the last 12 months American’s have been incessantly pounded with messages about the upcoming DTV transition. In simple terminology, if you’ve got an old TV hooked up to rabbit ears, it’s going to break in the very near future. The history of this problem is long, and complex, but it generally amounts to the fact that HDTV provides better quality in a smaller swath of frequency. Frequency that is very valuable and can get the government a couple of billion dollars at auction. Last year Verizon managed to snag a good chunk of the 700MHz spectrum currently used for television for it’s next generation 4G phone services.
In order to make this transition a little easier for Americans, the government approved the DTV coupon program, which gives anyone who asks for it two $40 cards that can be used to the purchase of a digital to analog converter – in essence these boxes downsample HD content so folks with SD televisions can still use them. When I was visiting relatives over the holiday season I saw that some of them had these and they generally worked pretty well. Unfortunately, the program has been such a success that they’ve now run out of money and folks who waited are being put on a waiting list until more money is made available for the program. In essence, these folks will loose their over the air TV signals on February 17th.
Congress, of course, wants to ensure that everyone can continue to watch their Wheel of Fortune and Nightline, and don’t want to be blamed by old people who vote, but turn off their hearing aids during advertisements and haven’t paid attention to the transition, for breaking their televisions. Two weeks ago the Senate voted to approve a delay until June. The house attempted to bring up under special rules, which would require a 2/3rds vote. Republicans got together and found enough people to vote against bringing it up on special rules, largely because the process would forbid them from proposing amendments, to make the vote fail. The DTV transition was still February 17th.
Now, much more recently the Senate has again passed a bill to extend the DTV transition period until June, and the House will vote on it tomorrow (Tuesday, February 3rd). It’s anyone’s call about whether or not this bill will pass – there’s good chance it will as Democrats will most likely vote for it after shooting down Republican attempts to litter the bill with tax cuts. President Obama will then sign the bill sometime later this week, less than two weeks before the transition, and magically, after we’ve been hearing for over a year that the transition would be February 17th, it will be moved to June. Talk about confusion.
But wait, it gets even better than that. Many stations have already put plans together and scheduled contractors to take down their analog transmitters. If you’re a small station this is a no-brainer because for the last several years you’ve been broadcasting on two different transmitters – which can eat a large portion of your budget. The new bill will do nothing to stop stations from shutting down their analog transmitters. In others words, instead of having all channels going to static at once, we’ll be left with a situation where there is piecemeal and unpredictable deactivation of the analog spectrum taking place anytime between February 17th and the new deadline in June. I’m sure Grandma is going to love that.
So now, we’re in the final countdown. 15 days to go, and it’s unclear if everything we’ve been hearing is correct or not. However, the bigger problem is that there has been information about this transition for more than a year now – you even see crawls running during television shows. Any television sold post 2007 must be able to accept ATSC digital television. There still are people who don’t know about this? Plausible. After all, there are people who believe all sorts of crazy things, like that Saddam was behind 9/11. So you can’t expect news to get to these people and inform them. At what point will the government realize that some people will just have to be screwed by this transition? My hunch is that there are few people left who have heard about the transition and haven’t done anything about it. Especially considering that most Americans get their television through pay services such as cable or satellite and won’t be affected regardless. I feel a little bad for the people who haven’t gotten their coupons yet, and I hope this is remedied soon, but fortunately February and March are pretty boring times in the US – few natural disasters, no elections, and only hockey and basketball are playing. Maybe they should try sitting down with a book for bit instead? Certainly that’s got more to it than the 5 phrases they see nightly on Wheel of Fortune.