On Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives voted 264-158 to delay the transition from analog to digital television. As soon as President Barack Obama signs the bill, which the Senate passed unanimously last week, the official switch will move from Feb. 17 to June 12. The reasons: George W. Bush’s administration mishandled the efforts to notify consumers the switch was coming — a shockingly original argument I’m sure won’t be used on another issue ever again — and consumers in rural and poor areas simply didn’t get the memo and aren’t ready.
I know, Bush screwed some stuff up during his eight years — “some” might be the grossest understatement I’ve ever used — but the federal government has provided a multitude of notifications and incentives to the general public to get their televisions ready. In Madison, Milwaukee and other television markets, local news anchors have come together to produce joint public service announcements broadcast repeatedly on the major network affiliate stations. There are countdowns and reports during local newscasts, tickers run on the bottom of the screen during primetime programs, tests performed that literally shows whether a particular television will work post-switch — if you haven’t heard of the switch and figured it out by now, you probably don’t watch enough television to make buying a converter box worth it.
“The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion,” read a White House statement, according to The Associated Press.
But people have already had the time they should have needed! This is not first delay in the transition, so here’s a brief history lesson: In 1996, the United States Congress enacted a 10-year transition period that, by the end of 2006, would shut down all analog television stations. Obviously, that didn’t go down so well. In 2005, fearing 10 years was not enough time to have people prepared, for the switch Congress passed the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, moving the switch to Feb. 17, 2009. And despite another two years, two months and 17 days added onto the initial 10 years, another four months is apparently necessary.
Evidently, the government ran out of the $40 coupons provided to consumers to apply to converter boxes, so there’s some poor management by the entire federal government. Still, the coupons ran out just this month, so consumers could have applied for them for over a year. Regardless, since when are Americans entitled to the ability to watch television? The government has already done more than necessary considering television is not an inherent right, but a privilege. Since the beginning of radio and television, the airwaves have always been public and accessible — if you have the means to buy the technology necessary to listen to or view them. The public has never had to pay cable or satellite fees to watch NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS or other major networks, but consumers have always been responsible for buying the television sets to view them.
Because consumers don’t have a choice, I understand the government’s desire to use public funding to provide discounts for television viewers. Still, a $40 voucher for a $50 to $60 device seems very generous — considering $1.34 billion has been spent solely on the coupons. These coupons were made available beginning in January 2008, and while the all-out media blitz did not heat up for a couple months, the campaign to have people ready to go has lasted a really, really long time.
But the government did not swoop in to aid in the transition from records to tape cassettes to CDs to MP3 players. Granted, that was more of a private industry switch, but record players became as obsolete as televisions without converter boxes will be on Feb. 17, err, now June 12. And the government did not provide coupons then, and it seems things worked out all right.
Obama and federal lawmakers are accommodating the public’s ignorance with this latest delay. They are also converting television viewing from a privilege to a right, which is a dangerous precedent to set. Technically, the switch does not legally have to occur until the end of 2009, so start placing bets on more spending on coupons, more annoying tickers, more commercials and, inevitably, yet another delay.
Tom Schalmo ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism.