Thursday, January 08, 2009

Here's an op-ed I co-authored about the coming digital TV switchover. It is shaping up to be a real disaster. Thankfully, people seem to be waking up to this fact:

America's DTV Transition Beset with Problems

By Steve Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk

On February 17, 2009, all full-power analog television broadcasts in the
United States will cease and existing TV stations will begin
broadcasting exclusively in a digital format. The switch to digital
television (DTV) will free up frequencies for emergency uses and allow
broadcasters to provide more programming for their viewers through

As a practical matter, people will need to subscribe to a cable or
satellite television service, use a digital-ready TV set, or hook up a
digital converter box to an analog TV set, in order to continue watching
broadcast television.

Unfortunately, the number of people who stand to lose their access to TV
programming in the coming DTV transition is considerable. Roughly 10 to
15 percent of all TV households (about 30 to 40 million people) still
rely on over-the-air television, most of whom are senior citizens, poor,
or non-English speakers. In a city like Chicago, with high poverty rates
and a large immigrant population, some 20 percent of residents still use
antenna-only TV and an estimated 230,000 households are completely
unready for the conversion.

The federal government has launched a coupon program that allows each
household to claim up to two $40 coupons to help offset the cost of
digital converter boxes for those that can't afford them otherwise. But
the coupons expire 90 days after issuance, and half of the more than 25
million people who have requested them have seen their coupons expire.

What's more, surveys show more than three-quarters of those who are
interested in getting converter boxes are not aware of the coupon

Preliminary testing of digital-only TV broadcasting in the US has been
all but non-existent. The sole switchover test, enacted in September in
Wilmington, NC, amounts to a false positive, since 92 percent of the
viewers impacted by the test already subscribe to cable. Across the
country, there have been sporadic tests -- perhaps a minute or a few
minutes at a time at various times and in various locales, but nothing

Outreach about the DTV conversion has been haphazard at best. For the
most part, the FCC is counting on public service announcements (PSAs)
voluntarily aired by broadcasters to inform viewers about the switch.

But only 13 percent of PSAs air during the most-watched hours of
primetime, and PSAs make up only one half of 1 percent of all TV

In recent months, the FCC has partnered with senior centers and
community groups to stage a series of "town hall" meetings about the DTV
transition in an effort to educate some of the most vulnerable
populations. But scheduling of these town hall gatherings has been ad
hoc and in many cities the meetings have been poorly attended.

The distribution of set-top converter boxes has also been fraught with
serious problems. Research has shown that the sort of stores that carry
converter boxes are typically located far from the low-income
neighborhoods which need them most. And many retailers have been caught
flat-footed -- not knowing about the transition and sometimes providing
incorrect information about the conversion or the coupon program.

Amid widespread confusion about the DTV conversion, there has been no
shortage of unscrupulous retailers taking advantage. Both fly-by-night
scam businesses and major satellite and cable TV providers have been
pushing unwitting TV viewers to buy equipment they don't need at
inflated prices. Worse still, earlier this year, the FCC fined several
large big box retailers a combined $3.9 million for failing to correctly
label analog-only TV sets that will be rendered useless come February

Just last week, government officials overseeing the transition told
Congress they may need an extra $330 million to keep up with the demand
for converter box coupons. They also admitted that there might not be
enough converter boxes available to fill anticipated needs -- and that
the shortfall could be as high as 2.5 million boxes.

The saddest thing about this entire situation is that America's
transition to DTV could've been handled much differently. The UK is
currently in the midst of its own switch to digital television. But
unlike here in the U.S., the British conversion is being rolled out
gradually over the course of four years, converting region-by-region,
practically neighborhood by neighborhood. What's more, the money the UK
has spent on outreach and infrastructure, per capita, puts American
efforts to shame. The British DTV conversion has had problems of its
own, but the problems have been far smaller in scale and easier to
address. Americans who watch TV and the regulators who shape our
communications policies would be wise to take notice.

Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central
College and Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a
frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts
in print, web, radio and television.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 1/09