Legislating Television

By Brian L. Clark

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February 17th, the day the first driver s ed class was offered in State College, PA; the day a little-known radio show called, Prairie Home Companion, went national; and the day in 2009 granny s rabbit ears become obsolete.

Or so Congress says.

Giant tech companies have long been pushing for a hard date to convert from analog to digital TV broadcasting. Last spring, CEOs from HP, Intel, IBM, Dell, Motorola and a host of others went so far as to send a group letter to Texas Republican, Congressman Joe Barton, arguing that failure to set a date certain would adversely impact our economy, our public safety and our position as a global innovation leader. Scary stuff, indeed.


In reality, the end of analog TV and the conversion to digital television will have little impact on the 80 percent or so of Americans who subscribe to a cable or satellite provider. But the remaining 20 percent who get their broadcast signals from an antenna, well, they re screwed. It s upgrade to digital via a $40 to $60 converter, buy a new TV, or risk losing the Game Show Network forever.

But is the February 17, 2009, date really set in stone? Some Congressmen think it will be pushed back again to give more time for holdouts to make the switch. Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) has been one of the staunchest critics of the House bill, saying it doesn t do enough to fund the transition.

Any DTV bill we approve should ensure government does not engage in the unconstitutional practice of taking private property without just compensation, says Markey. The Republican plan renders millions of perfectly good TVs inoperable and has a disproportionate, negative effect on the elderly, the poor and minorities.


It will, however, help sell TVs. A hard cut-off date gives certainty to consumers and broadcasters, says Jeff Joseph of the Consumer Electronics Association. It also gives certainty to manufacturers when it comes to product planning.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates 21 million households rely on over-the-air broadcasting. There are as many as 73 million sets not connected either to cable or satellite. The plan approved by Congress offers $1.5 Billion for the consumer converter box program, which covers less than half of the affected TV sets. Apparently, someone in Congress needs to work on their math.

So what happens to the current frequencies once analog broadcasting goes the way of the tube TV? The government plans to auction them off in the hopes that it can gain $10 billion toward balancing the budget. Every little $10 billion helps, particularly when you re talking about a $477 billion deficit. Congress has also said it hopes to devote a portion of the frequency to emergency services personnel.


Coming Up: An FCC study showed a la carte cable pricing allowing people to pick and choose only those channels they want to watch could save consumers between 3 and 13 percent on their bill. Senator John McCain plans to introduce legislation proposing cable companies be required to offer the a la carte option. Tune in next week for more details as well as the cable industry s response.