Saturday, January 10, 2009
The transition to digital television next month has been hailed as the biggest advance in over-the-air TV since the advent of NBC's color Peacock, but it's shaping up as a black eye for the government and risks leaving millions of viewers without a picture.
Congress has been in private talks about adding eyes to accommodate this, since their supply of unblackened eyes has become seriously depleted.
On Thursday, President-elect Barack Obama asked Congress to postpone the federally mandated switch to all-digital broadcast television, called DTV, scheduled to take place Feb. 17.
The unspecified delay would give the government time to fix a consumer-help program that ran out of money this week. But it also would set back the long-promised benefits of digital TV, which offers sharper pictures and more free channels for infomercials while opening valuable airwaves for public safety and wireless Internet access.
The government took in $19.6 billion last year by auctioning existing analog TV airwaves to telecommunications companies for new wireless services, but Congress allocated less than $2 billion to educate consumers about the transition and issue coupons to buy needed converter boxes.
It has been suggested by pundits that this is part of the government's "the less they know, the better" secret program.
Others have suggested remedial mathematics classes for Senate and House members.
Now an estimated 7.7 million households nationwide may find their screens going dark next month. Until now, it took programming geniuses at the networks to make that happen.
Although a delay is far from certain, given potential opposition from broadcasters, public safety agencies and telecom companies eager to start using those new airwaves, there was plenty of frustration Thursday with the way the digital TV transition has been managed.
President Bush has issued a statement from Crawford: "This is another more example of why we must defeat the 'axis of evil' wherever it may be found."
"The list of who's to blame is long," said Joel Kelsey, a long-time critic of the transition as policy analyst with Consumers Union, which also called for a delay this week. "It was a giant miscalculation by our federal government. If those guys ran Mayberry, Barney Fife would have that one bullet, but no gun!"
Some lawmakers resisted that label, saying that, "This is no Hurricane Katrina, or Iraq, or financial collapse, and besides, if you have no money, how can you afford the electricity to watch TV anyway? So actually this will help the economy by putting more money back in consumer pockets to spend on things like food. With less demand for electricity, the nation's clear skies initiative will realize much needed progress." NBC is said to be rushing a "Law and Order Black Screen" spinoff to take advantage of heightened interest.
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the relevant committees were working with Obama's transition team to solve the problems. She added a request that reporters should help her find her lost cellphone.
Congress decided in 2005 to require all TV stations to broadcast only in digital to free up airwaves for public safety use in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and for auctioning to telecom companies to shrink the federal deficit. "What'd we take in, $17 billion or so? Man, THAT'll shrink the deficit like a jelly donut will shrink Oprah," said a former administration official, who requested anonymity.
Some have suggested that Oprah Winfrey's recent weightgain will use up too many of the digits, and that this will further weaken the nation's switch to digital TV.
People with cable, satellite or phone company TV services will continue to receive broadcast stations, even if they don't "get" them. But those who rely on antennas must have either a newer TV with a digital receiver or get a converter box. No-frills versions of those boxes cost $40 to $70. Frilly versions cost up to $15,000, but include a FEMA trailer. To offset the expense, the federal government allocated $1.5 billion to provide households with up to two $40 coupons.
But Monday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the program had used all allocated funds. The agency has about 1.1 million still waiting, which stretches around the block many times.
Still, the nearly 8 million households that rely on antennas and are unprepared for the conversion face the prospect of paying full price for converter boxes during a recession -- or watching their TVs go blank after the switch. About 535,000 of those homes are in the L.A. market, the Nielsen Co. says.
In a letter Thursday to key members of Congress, John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama's presidential transition team, said the Feb. 17 conversion should be delayed, though he did not specify for how long. But with the incoming administration facing economic and foreign policy crises, it does not want to add a major problem with TV viewing in its first weeks in office. "Reruns of Family Ties are still very popular with many of our legislators who embrace family values," he said.
Podesta cited troubles with the converter box coupon program as well as inadequate efforts to educate the public about the switch, and the need to help elderly, poor and rural Americans receive QVC.
"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," Podesta wrote.
Some Republicans said Obama was needlessly concerned when all Congress needed to do was make small fixes to the program.
"We don't need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn't failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas). "Ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars, however, is just panic. Heck, so some people can't watch us bungle things at the start of a new administration - what's wrong with that? What do the Dems want, anyway, to arm the national guard with screwdrivers and set them loose on Granny's tee-vee?"
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has requested a temporary allocation of $250 million to resolve the coupon program backlog, said acting Administrator Meredith Atwell Baker. She said the Bush administration opposed a delay.
"Congress established everything about this program. We are just the implementers," Baker said. "Why are people watching those old TVs anyway? Everybody I know has a flatscreen."
The National Assn. of Broadcasters was cautious in its response Thursday, saying it was willing to work with Obama and the Congress "to ensure a successful DTV transition, the way we have with HD radio."
Broadcasters have invested billions of dollars in preparing for the switch and are anxious to turn off their analog signals, which use large amounts of electricity, and annoy many by causing dogs to bark. But stations also do not want to lose viewers because their TVs can't receive the digital signals. "We shoulda left it to Beaver. It all went downhill after that," said JB "Curly" Wincock, a retired engineer at an Emporia, Kansas, local TV station.