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No Viewer Left Behind

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I objected when Monday Night Football moved from over-the-air broadcast television to cable/satellite ESPN after 35 years on ABC. Making fans have to pay to see televised football is nothing short of un-American, I argued to no avail. I objected last year when the NFL channel kept  exclusive rights to broadcast a Thursday night game only available on satellite, which you cannot receive if you do not have a southern exposure for a dish. The once public airwaves ceased to be public.  What next, I thought:   the public will have to pay to watch public television? I hate being right.

Congress mandated the conversion from analog to all-digital television broadcasting presumably because all-digital broadcasting would free up frequencies for public safety communications such as police, fire, and emergency rescue. The government Originally set upsays that DTV technology will allow broadcasters to offer “television with movie-quality picture and CD-quality sound.” In addition, the switch frees up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum for public safety and those airwaves can also be used for commercial wireless services, which are private interest.

When the legislation originally came up, television stations were supposed to broadcast analog and digital signal in parallel until 2017. The Bush administration dropped that stipulation and the FCC auctioned the airwave spectrum. The wireless biopoly of AT&T and Verizon Communications paid a collective $16 billion at the FCC auction. Back in 2005 when the Republican Congress passed the legislation requiring the conversion, they set February 19, 2009, as the conversion deadline.

However, a glitch occurred. According to the Nielsen Company more than 6.5 million homes are still unprepared to receive digital signals. The government said 1.4 million households are on a waiting list for an equipment subsidy which is financed by the FCC auction. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, said it had hit the $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress to pay for converter box coupons. In other words, the government subsidy for converter boxes ran out of money.

At that point the Obama administration decided to push for a delay because the government is not doing enough to help Americans prepare for and navigate the transition. The issue seemed to especially affect  rural, poor or minority communities. The Senate GOP opposed the delay. Congressional lines in the sand began to appear.

Enter Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia, the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. ”Over 2 million Americans are waiting to receive a coupon to help them offset the cost of equipment that will help them manage the transition,” he said. “Millions more don't have the proper information they need."  Rockefeller contended that delaying the transition by three months would give the federal government time to fill a backlog of consumer coupon requests and also to give the government and the FCC more time to prepare for the change.  This week a unanimous Senate voted to postpone the upcoming transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.  

The House had its own proposal but was expected to go along with the move that was proffered by the Obama administration. Enter Representative Henry Waxman of California, Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce. His bill sought to change the DTV Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 to insert the new date. It would also move the expiration date of any DTV-to-analog coupons that have expired to Sept. 15, 2009.

The Consumers Union weighed in and wrote to Waxman’s Committee, “We are concerned that millions of at-risk consumers, including rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country could be left with blank television screens.” In addition to consumers having “fewer resources than ever” to buy converter boxes, this is “not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government."

The House Bill failed by 26 votes and GOP members claimed victory, warning that postponing the transition would confuse consumers. The 258-168 vote did not cThe House bill failedlear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage. The February conversion stands.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration  had almost 3 million coupon requests on a waiting list last week and those people will not receive their coupons before February 17. The NTIA is sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones reach a 90-day expiration date and free up more money. To date, more than half of coupons that have reached their 90 day cycle have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired.

Although a minority, many of our elderly folks for whom rabbit-ear-antenna television is their entertainment may be looking at black screens next month. The AARP’s advice is pragmatic – “get a special converter box that will make your analog set work” or  “subscribe to a cable, satellite or other pay service for all the sets in your home, or buy a new TV that will receive digital signals.”

While I can buy into the public safety aspects of using analog television frequencies for emergency services, I cannot buy into making people pay for the public airwaves. The same House legislators who defeated a three month delay also decide Public Television and the National Endowment for the Arts funding. The Obama administration may know who its friends are, but millions of viewers are now left behind.  

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • Arch Conservative

    Quit your bitching and come join the rest of us in the 21st century.

  • Brunelleschi

    I actually agree with Arch on something!

    Who even cares?

    For the people trying to turn to government for relief with such a silly thing, my answer is-

    “Ah, you can’t see the TV. That sounds like a middle class problem.”

    Just don’t buy pizza a couple of times and buy your own box.


  • I think the point the article is making is that old people on fixed incomes have old TVs and no idea what to do about it as well as no funds to do anything.

    I actually dispute the claims about how many TVs aren’t digital ready. I suspect that they’re mostly second TVs that aren’t hooked up to much of anything, like the TV in my woodshop which I use maybe once a month.


  • “I objected when Monday Night Football moved from over-the-air broadcast television to cable/satellite ESPN after 35 years on ABC. Making fans have to pay to see televised football is nothing short of un-American, I argued to no avail.”

    You do realize that effectively ESPN moved its nightly game from Sunday to Monday and the network primetime game moved from Monday to Sunday?

    “I objected last year when the NFL channel kept exclusive rights to broadcast a Thursday night game only available on satellite, which you cannot receive if you do not have a southern exposure for a dish. The once public airwaves ceased to be public.”

    You can object all you want but it’s the NFL’s product and nobody is ever entitled to any certain game a week. And when the Patriots and Giants played Week 17 in 2007 and it was stuck on the NFL Network, they did reach a deal which simulcasted that game on two different network stations.

    Sorry, I can’t read any more after that deeply, deeply flawed intro.

  • Good old capitalism. I have 5 televisions in my home. None of them are capable of receiving a digital signal. I subscribe to Comcast primarily because I also use the cable service for my internet access. We don’t receive any premium or pay channels. The duel service costs us around $105. per month. The upside is that I won’t have to do or buy anything when the transition takes place.

    I’m ambivalent about the problems that may ensue with the Feb. 17 deadline. Undoubtedly, there are people out there who have no idea that anything is about to change. I suspect, though, that most caught unawares will do whatever is necessary to get their old boob tubes up and working. Some won’t.

    I hardly think of this as any kind of tragedy, but a whole lot of people do depend on the tube for their entertainment, and perhaps, more importantly, for their information – news, weather, etc. It will be troubling for those who cannot afford to buy a converter box – even with a coupon. Nevertheless, it’s something that will eventually work its way out. A few might fall through the cracks as it were, but again, for the most part, we aren’t talking life and death here.

    I’m not a fan of things like the NFL channel. A couple of years ago the Big Ten conference started up its own network. About 80% of all their football and basketball games are aired only on their network. I have long been an Indiana University basketball fan – I whooped it up through Bob Knight’s glory years, and suffered through his coming apart years.

    Now that I can’t watch them play on the tube, they have effectively lost me as a fan. I guess I’ll start watching the Butler Bulldogs.


  • Baronius

    I didn’t have a coupon, so I bought a box and paid full price for it. The whole project is an interesting study in government-run markets, with underestimation of demand, delays, inflation, and rationing. But by all means, let’s trust them to run America’s dialysis machines.

    Anyway, no one has free access to public airwaves. You’ve got to buy a television.

  • I suspect, though, that most caught unawares will do whatever is necessary to get their old boob tubes up and working.

    Nothing galvanizes a chap more than taking his TV away from him…

  • Gah! TV. It’s the devil.

    Now if I could just get the cable to go haywire. The silence would be golden.

  • In followup to #6, consider the poor people in Britain, who in addition to paying for their TV and likely paying for cable or satellite, have to pay a periodic TV tax for every TV they own, just for the privelege of having the box in their home.


  • Not quite, Dave. You have to pay a licence if you watch TV in your home. The number of sets is immaterial.

    If you only have a black-and-white TV the licence costs about a third of what you pay for colour. There used to be a radio licence as well, but that was done away with some years ago.

    The revenue pays for the BBC, which is money well spent as far as I’m concerned.

  • Thanks for the clarification. Of course, it’s not money well spent if I have cable and only watch Skye and ITV and the cable news networks, is it. That’s the problem with involuntary taxation to pay for stuff like BBC – all freedom of chocie is taken away.

    How much is the license, anyway?


  • OK, cabalists, I was too damn sinister. It is the behavior of congress, not of the NFL that is important. We tend to forget that there are analogue folks out there. Not everyone is as digital as we.

    The latest AP story notes that congressional democrats could bring the delay bill up again for a regular vote, as opposed to the 2/3 majority vote.


  • Baronius

    Tommy, I’m sure that you would’ve found plenty of agreement about the NFL if you posted this on the Sports or even the TV sections. Me, I’d spend extra money for a box that made Terry Bradshaw and Keith Olbermann go away. Commentators who think they’re wacky-clever drive me up the wall.

  • Dave,

    The licence is currently £139.50 a year for colour and £47 for black and white. According to xe.com, that’s $199.15 and $67.09 respectively at today’s exchange rate.

    As I said, that allows you to have as many TVs as you want and is well worth the money to get a quality broadcaster like the BBC and be able to watch it commercial-free. Sure, there are people who bitch about the licence fee and claim they never watch the Beeb, but you have to take that with a pinch of seasoning.

    And I’m all for freedom of chocie, especially if it’s Cadbury’s.

  • Damn, that’s an expensive license. Glad I didn’t have a TV last time I lived in the UK. That was like a month’s food budget while I was doing grad study in London.


  • You’re a bit confused, Dave. The licence was cheaper back when you were a student and nowadays you won’t be eating every day if your monthly food budget is only £139.50.

    For that, we get 4 TV channels, 6 or 7 different radio stations and a worldwide news service. I’d call that a good deal.

  • Chris,

    That’s got nothin’ on my cable service. I get “Spike,” the MAN’S channel, 2 channels devoted to auto racing AND 2 golf channels! I can switch back and forth several times watching while 2 long putts simultaneously amble across the verdent greens toward their respective cups. You can’t beat that with a stick — or a golf club. It’s great!


  • Just to clarify, that isn’t the monthly licence fee, it’s the annual fee. Would probably cover B-tone’s cable for a couple of months…!

  • Chris,

    BBC3 and BBC4 are free to air now? Last I heard they were only available on cable/satellite – or you had to buy a decoder box and/or a subscription – or something. That’s great news if they are free.

  • Yeah, they come with the new Freeview digital terrestrial channels and freeview is built into modern TVs.

  • Cool. And ITV3 etc. as well?

    With all those channels, the Radio Times must have a reallyinterestinglayout these days!

  • Meanwhile, back at congress, here is the latest news about the delay vote.