Sunday, February 1, 2009

No Viewer Left Behind

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 analogue 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 says 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 that is financed by the FCC auction. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, said it had hit its $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 clear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage. The February conversion stands, at least until the House Bill comes to the floor again. By regular majority vote, Democrats have sufficient votes to pass the legislation and send it to the President.

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 analogue television frequencies for public safety, I cannot buy into making people pay for 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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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, January 29, 2009

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