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DTV: A Mess That Could Have Been Avoided

Posted by: Cliff Edwards on January 27, 2009

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.

Reader Comments


January 27, 2009 2:25 PM

Could you be anymore dramatic?
The first person you should call if your TV goes out is someone to help get you out of the un-digitally-converted box you've been living in. I would have thought a tech article would expect the elderly to do what they've been doing for years - call their grandchildren for tech help.

Frankly, if you don't know whats going on, you don't even need a converter box.

Ed LaFoe

January 27, 2009 2:45 PM

Why is there no coverage of how the delay will retard the next wave of wireless mobile communications?

The old TV channels are prime frequencies for new mobile communication services, both for police/fire/government and for-profit sales to all of us. We can't hire workers to build and sell these new services until the old TV channels are available for use.

Why is Congress blocking progress (technical and economic) instead of expediting it?

You want a shovel-ready project? Issue more coupons!

Aldo Cugnini

January 28, 2009 11:21 AM

What Congress is oblivious to is the fact that some people simply won't switch until their TV goes dark. When that happens, they will try to get a coupon, and -- guess what -- they won't be able to, since NTIA can't give out new coupons until the existing ones have expired, and can only issue replacements for expired ones. That means that last holdouts will likely not be able to get coupons. Duh.


January 28, 2009 3:16 PM

Are you trying to say that "5 million U.S. households" who aren't ready for the transition isn't a good reason for a delay? Really?

And the coupon expiration dates were a stupid idea that made absolutely no sense at all to begin with.

But here's the sentence that I find most irritating about this posting: "Many people who could afford to shell out the $45 or so at the local Best Buy probably didn’t need coupons anyway."

I did not ask for this transition. The public was not clamoring for this transition. My TV works fine now.

I don't want to pay for cable. And I do NOT want to pay $45 minimum just so that my TV will work the SAME on February 17th as it did on February 16th, not to mention the cost of a fancy antennae.

Davey Crockett

January 28, 2009 3:56 PM

I don't have to re-scan my channels. All the local channels in the Houston area have been broadcasting DTV for over a year. I have a digital receiver, not a converter box, that I bought over a year ago. At any rate, how could the mess have been avoided? That was the title of the article, so what's the answer?


January 28, 2009 10:09 PM

same old stuff----it will never change------at the last minute they want to delay it when it's been advertised for over a year that the change was coming!


January 29, 2009 12:30 AM

Delaying the switchover serves no purpose. Those who have procrastinated and are not ready for the switchover probably still will not be ready June 12. Just the energy that is being wasted by every television broadcaster in the country operating two transmitters instead of one is a good reason not to delay the change. Trust me, when the screen goes blank on the analog TV sets those who have been watching them will get on the digital band wagon really quick. It will be the same story June 12 as it will be Feb 17 so why wait.??


January 29, 2009 5:45 PM

"Many people who could afford to shell out the $45 or so at the local Best Buy probably didn’t need coupons anyway."

I can afford the $45 but as Chris already said, I did not ask for this transition and should not be paying for it. Even with the coupons, my VCR and portable pocket TV will become obsolete, VCR's with digital tuners start at about $200, with no coupons for those, and no converter box for my pocket TV. Sure you can watch TV on a cellphone, paying by the minute, but my old pocket TV could receive signals for free.


January 31, 2009 12:12 PM

I applied for a coupon in July and it never arrived. They told me that by law, I can't re-apply and they can't issue a replacement. I am 61 yrs old, disabled and live on a fixed income (SSI). I don't have the extra $50.00 or more for the box. If I could afford cable, I'd have it, but it's about $50.00 a month here. I'm sure I'm not the only one this has happened to.

Mike Christensen

February 6, 2009 12:35 AM

No, Dave, your VCR won't be obsolete even with a converter box. You can use the converter box FOR the VCR, and then go from there to the old TV.

But yes, your and my pocket TVs will be mostly useless even with the converter boxes, since we both know that being hooked to the leash of a converter box would defeat the purpose of the small, compact size of the pocket TV.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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