DTV: A Mess That Could Have Been Avoided

As my colleague Steve Wildstrom wrote in an earlier post, it looks like the much-delayed transition to all-digital television will be delayed yet again. But will it really?

The Senate bill that passed Jan. 26 now contains specific language that allows any of the major U.S. broadcasters to switch off their analog signals anytime after the current Feb. 17 deadline and before the proposed new June 12th date.

What does it all mean? The confusing mess that many critics of a delay predicted is set to occur. Many of them are privately complaining it’s a big game of pass the buck. Rather than face criticism from some 5 million U.S. households (and presumed voters) said to be not ready for the Feb. 17 cutoff, Congress appears to be prepping broadcasters for any blame game that may come.

Here’s why: Broadcasters now can make the switchover anytime over a four-month period. After Feb. 17, you the consumer were expected to program your TV or set-top box to rescan all the digital channels. Some of them actually will be moving from their current place on your remote.

Now, unless broadcasters in a given area coordinate their switchover, you could conceivably be futzing with 10-20 minute channel scanning numerous times through June.

Frustrating? Yes. Confusing? Most definitely. And who are you going to complain to? Your local station might be first on the list. Or maybe you’ll call up Best Buy or the TV/set-top box maker to complain things suddenly aren’t working. I’d bet few of us would think to call our elected official, though.

To make matters worse, the whole reason for the delay—because there’s a long waiting list for DTV converter box coupons—isn’t cleared up in the slightest. A lot of people (who could request two each) have at least one unused coupon sitting in a drawer somewhere. They expire 90 days after they were issued, and new coupons are then issued to people on a waiting list. Now, anyone who previously requested a coupon can request new ones. Huh? Wasn’t the goal to reduce the list of people looking for coupons, not extend it?

Better still, the Senate bill doesn’t allocate a penny more to the program.

Overlooked in all this is the fact that the coupon program was never intended to pay for every single person’s converter box. Many people who could afford to shell out the $45 or so at the local Best Buy probably didn’t need coupons anyway. And the poor and elderly who are said to be overlooked right now and potentially disenfranchised by seeing their TV signals disappear were always the ones less likely to knows the ins and outs of requesting a coupon in the first place.

Federal regulators internally were predicting some 4 percent of the population would not be ready for the switch, no matter what the date. As it stands now, 100 percent of us are set the suffer the consequences.

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