Sunday, January 11, 2009

TV: About that digital switch

"As two who regularly argue broadcast TV is better than cable TV, your silence on the digital switch is telling. I find it amazing that you've yet to address PBS's special with the cast of This Old House on digital TV," writes e-mailer Nikolas in something Ty slid over to us.


First, we've never argued broadcast TV was better or worse than cable. We've covered broadcast (FREE) TV due to the makeup of Third's readership. As someone who who attributes an argument to us that we've never made, we find your e-mail highly confusing, Nikolas. The digital switch has been covered here many, many times and this site first began covering it in 2005. As for the special you refer to, first off we believe, despite PBS' billing preference, that the men you refer to are "hosts" and not a cast; second, we did catch that special and we were trying to be nice.

The special's airing and has aired on various PBS stations across the country. Click here for PBS' reference page and we believe a link to that broadcast. We either caught the special last month or near the end of November. Our notes show Kevin O'Connor and Norm Abram were the ones from This Old House and we, sadly, couldn't forget Maria Hinojosa's role in the proceedings. The whole thing played out like A Mayberry Reunion and, no, that wasn't a good thing.

NOW on PBS' Hinojosa was barely on it so let's address her contribution first. The news woman (she is a journalist) apparently lost her mittens -- or at least her journalistic credentials. The digital switch -- from analog signals to digital, she told us, was because it would provide the viewers with a better picture. It was as though we'd stepped into Circuit City and Maria was attempting to hard-sell us a car stereo.

Better picture, Maria? We kind of think Consumers Union nailed the reasons for the switch with this statement, "The government auctioned off the old analog frequencies to wireless broadband companies for $19 billion." We found it appalling that public television couldn't include that tid-bit and we'd strongly suggest that no other news personality branch out into infotainment because it degrades PBS' entire news division.

Those analog frequencies? They belonged to the people of the United States. They were sold cheap and the people will see nothing off that sale. Again, Maria refused to explore that. She just wanted to look like an idiot and grin like everyone else in Mayberry and, at that, she succeeded.

Again, we were trying to be nice and just ignore the special. Another reason we wanted to ignore the special is we have no idea if the digital transfer works for all TVs that will still be receiving their signals over the airwaves.

A converter box (we'll give more details on that in a bit) is supposed to be easily hooked up to your TV and then your rabbit ear antennas are hooked up to it or you connect the cable for your roof antenna to it. It never failed to work for Kevin and Norm as they went around picturesque Mayberry where everyone knew their names and couldn't wait to open their homes up to them.

But did that mean it would work for all? Not according to what Kevin and Norm told people when they installed the converter boxes. Some people would not get a better signal, they would, in fact, get no signal. If that happened, they would have to call a specialist in. Though they never encountered anyone like that, they did share that tid-bit. Repeatedly.

They encountered people who, for example, planned to just go out and purchase a new plasma TV. Who are those people? The government studies on who is most effected by the switch, most at risk of losing TV, are predominately poor and elderly citizens. A disproportionate number of them are African-Americans and 11.5% are Latinos. So it was hilarious to watch Kevin and Norm encounter these people who could just decide they'd buy a new HD TV. It was strange to watch as one Asian-American appeared to be the only splash of color in a White-White neighborhood that made Mr. Rogers' look like Oakland.

If this special was supposed to help or inform, it would have needed to go to a poor neighborhood and, hint, those people would not have been home owners. But there was damn little reality in the special.

We noticed that especially as the boxes were hooked up and Kevin and Norm -- as well as the house residents -- avoided one issue. It's kind of an important issue that anyone using analog already knows. If you depend on an antenna, you do not hook it directly to your TV. You run it into your VCR. You will get a picture that way. The VCR, for whatever reason, will pick up the analog signal better. This is especially an important thing to know in rural areas where you're picking up the signal from a broadcaster towns and towns away.

But no one ever raised that issue. Kevin and Norm never hooked it up to a VCR or DVD player (and most DVD players will do the same thing the VCR does in terms of an analog signal). They hooked it up to the TV. And none of the residents ever said, "You know, I'm running the antenna through the VCR/DVD player because I get a stronger signal that way. Will that still happen with digital?"

Ty slid Nikolas' e-mail over to us Saturday night. We didn't have a great deal of time to make calls before the hour would be late but we did call TCI community members in rural areas of Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The 13 we were able to reach had not yet made the switch to digital. (6 were waiting on coupons, 7 needed to request them -- again, we'll get to that in a bit). But when we asked if they had any basic questions, they would repeatedly raise the issue of how did they plug the converter in so that the antenna would be going into their VCR or was that no longer needed to get a strong signal?

Had Norm and Kevin left Mayberry and ventured out into the real world, we'd assume they'd have been asked that question as well.

The converter boxes are not free. Despite the fact that the public's assets were sold off cheap -- or because they were -- the public is expected to eat the costs on this, household by household.

First, if you have an HD TV, you're fine. You won't need a converter box. If you have cable or satellite -- on an HD TV or an old TV -- you're fine. The cable and satellite feed you're getting will continue. It only effects people getting the signal over the airwaves (without a satellite dish) and doing so on non-HD TVs.

For weeks now, across the country, people have been watching programs when a BOMP-BOMP-BOMP would sound and, like a weather bulletin warning, they'd be informed that if they were seeing this, they weren't ready for the digital switch and, come February 17th, they'd be receiving no signal. E-mails to this site noted that this tended to take place in the last five minutes of syndicated episodes of The Simpsons. Which did not please people. We're aware that this was usually the hour right before prime time and it happened on all stations in the viewers area. It also took place early in the morning before the network's morning shows came on. Someone appeared to think that by targeting those two time periods, they'd reach everyone. Really?

What about the person who just turns it on for the local sports games and, otherwise, doesn't even watch TV? He or she's going to attempt to catch a game after the switch and be in for a rude awakening.

So you've got an old TV and no cable or satellite. What do you do?

You need converter box or else you need to be prepared to use your TV only to watch your DVDs and videotapes on. The converter boxes can run as high as $80.00 a piece. The government has $40.00 coupons and each household can receive two of them. That may not cover all the TVs in some households.

You can find details here and you can request coupons here. (1-888-DTV-2009 is the toll free number for those who would prefer to request via phone.)

Currently, you're told there are 37 days until the death of analog TV. That may not be true. (And if it is, that's for the mainland. Hawaii does the switch over this week -- unless it's postponed.)

If you sign up for coupons today, you'll be placed on a waiting list. The program is out of money.

On Wednesday, Consumers Union issued "Consumers Union Asks Congress to Consider Delay of Digital TV Transition After Federal Coupon Program Runs Out of Money:"

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, today said Congress should consider delaying the February 17 transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts.
letters to members of Congress, President Bush, and President-elect Obama, Consumers Union pointed to the fact that the government program that subsidizes crucial TV converter boxes has run out of money, and hundreds of thousands of affected consumers are now on waiting lists for coupons.
The federal government mandated the digital TV switch to free up more room in the wireless spectrum. The government auctioned off the old analog frequencies to wireless broadband companies for $19 billion. Consumers who use "rabbit ear" aerials or rooftop antennas must upgrade their TVs for digital reception. The simplest upgrade is a converter box, which generally costs between $40 and $80. To help offset the cost, the government offered $40 coupons, but the program has run out of funds six weeks before the transition.
Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, said, "The federal government is getting $19 billion from selling the analog TV spectrum, while people with analog TVs have to go out and spend their own money for a converter box. Everyone affected by the digital switch should be able to get their $40 coupons. Congress needs to consider delaying the transition until these problems are fixed."
In addition to raising concerns about the coupon program, Consumers Union questioned the ability of the Federal Communications Commission’s national call center to handle the flood of calls expected before and after February 17, and it cited concerns about the amount of local assistance and public information available to at-risk consumers, particularly among elderly, rural, and low-income populations.
More information about the digital TV transition is available on the Consumer Reports web site at

And following that letter, W. David Gardner (Information Week) reported that Barak Obama had John Podesta convey that the switch should be put on a brief hold due to the above problems. If he does nothing else in the next four years, for one moment at least, Barack showed concern for those who were not the big moneyed fat cats.*

It's difficult to believe that the Congress would attempt to ignore Barack on this because anyone effected negatively will be one pissed off voter. The Philadelphia Inquier's Jonathan Storm and Bob Fernandez report that US House Rep Edward Markey and Senator Jay Rockefeller are already calling for a delay as well. The Fort Mill Times informs that Alaska's two US Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, have stated they support the request to delay the digital switch. And editorials are popping up, such as this one by The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which call for the switch to be delayed. One voice objecting to any delay is FCC Chair and the Sweetheart of Big Business Kevin Martin. However, two former FCC chairs have come out in support of the delay. Michael Powell and William Kennard co-authored a column in last week's New York Times arguing:

By delaying the switch to digital by just a few months, and spending more money on the program -- which the Obama transition team hinted on Thursday that it might favor -- we could provide enough coupons and establish a stronger call center. There would be time for manufacturers to put more converter boxes in the pipeline. And we'd have enough time to work with community groups to provide technical assistance and support to the people who need it.
If the transition to digital TV goes badly, it will inconvenience millions. There is no reason to rush toward a fiasco when we can just as well take the time to make sure the change happens smoothly.


*Note: There are various figures being thrown around and Nielsen for some reason got into it with their own sets of figures. We've used figures provided by friends on Barack's transition team -- one of whom said, "Well I hope you're finally going to say something nice about President Obama." So we did, the statement before the "*". In terms of who is effected, if you find different figures, please check on your own to see if those are state or national figures. We've used national figures. Nielsen is finding a large number of elderly people ready for the switch and younger people not ready. None of their figures currently make sense -- a bit like their TV ratings -- and we're sticking with the original figures for the at-risk pool. How long of delay does Barack want? At least until spring but, at present, the transition team says that the actual date would be left up to Congress to decide upon.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }