Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

The digital TV transition is another huge mess Obama inherits from Bush

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Originally published on on Fri, 01/09/2009 – 12:39pm

For some Americans getting “free TV,” this (left) may be what is on their screens even if they had a converter box or a digital TV.

We talk about the many “gifts” the Bush Administration is giving the new president-elect. But there is one that may not seem important, but to those who are directly affected, it might have more meaning.

I’m talking, of course, about the transition from analog TV to digital TV.

The Bush Administration’s Commerce Department has been running the process, yet when the deadline comes on February 17, Barack Obama will be president. And things aren’t looking good for the transition, increasing the chances government will get blamed. And that might be Obama, not Bush.

Oh, TV stations are broadcasting in analog and digital. Wilmington, NC even had a market test. You’ve seen 10 million PSAs for the change, whether this affects you or not.

So what have the Bush people done wrong? Let’s start with the most obvious part. Those who get their TV via the antenna (i.e., not cable or satellite), and don’t have a digital TV will need a converter box. The boxes cost about $50-$60, but the government promised two $40 coupons for every household. (Would the boxes be as high as $50-$60 if there wasn’t a built-in $40 coupon deal??)

Unfortunately for competence and sanity, the people running the system made the coupons void after 90 days. If you wanted more coupons, you were out of luck. And as we are finding out now, the Commerce Department has run out of money, yet hasn’t run out of people wanting the coupon. Even Obama has expressed concern over the coupon issue.

Now these are the obvious problems. But there is an underlying issue that all the 10 million PSAs you’ve seen have completely ignored, and it has the potential to make a certain percentage of the population even angrier at government.

What the clever PSAs don’t tell you is that digital signals don’t travel as far as analog signals. And that many of the VHF channels (2-13) will actually broadcast their digital signals on UHF frequencies (14-69). Oh, and UHF signals don’t travel as well as VHF signals.

So you might have a friend who has a converter box, and is all set to continue to watch broadcast TV, and that person might find that, oops, they can’t get all or some of the signals. Some might get most channels but not NBC or PBS.

So now, besides a converter box, this person has to buy a stronger antenna, or rehook up the antenna on the roof – in the middle of winter. Or there is no roof antenna or the antenna can’t pull in the shorter range of the TV signals, then free TV might not exist for them.

Even a digital TV won’t solve this problem. So these people who were getting free TV signals for years, and shelled out $40 for a converter box, still won’t be able to get TV — unless they get cable or satellite. This is when people will really start screaming.

There will be charges — right or wrong — that this transition is a conspiracy to get people to buy cable. And while the facts don’t back that up, it will be difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Buffalo and Denver are two major cities that will have trouble. And a lot of people live in smaller cities near a TV market, but not in a TV market. Anecdotally, my mother lives 40-50 miles from the nearest media market, so she is destined to live with cable or no TV. For these people, “free TV” no longer becomes free, even with a digital TV.

Many people, whether they get their TV from broadcast, cable, or satellite, do rely on broadcast stations for emergencies, such as tornadoes and thunderstorms. When the World Trade Center collapsed in September 2001, many New Yorkers relied on broadcast channels for important information. Though ironically, only WCBS-TV was available by antenna, since the station had a supplemental antenna on the Empire State Building. (The other stations had antennas on the WTC.) On September 11 in New York City, you could receive the broadcasts via cable or satellite, but if you had an antenna (digital TV or otherwise), your options were down to one channel.

There are legitimate reasons for making the move from analog to digital broadcasting, but there has been a woeful lack of coverage about why that is true, and the stark reality that many, even with a converter box or a digital TV, will have to start paying for “free TV” through cable or satellite. The government is going to get blamed for that. And thanks to the incompetency of the Bush Administration, once again, Obama could quote the words of Oliver Hardy: “This is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” is a great Web site to determine whether you can pick up digital signals in your area. is the government’s Web site for the transition.


Written by democracysoup

January 9, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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