Monday, January 09, 2006

Two views on the coming digital TV transfer

Here are two recent examples of where the press is getting it right and getting it wrong in covering the pending transfer from analog to digital television--now scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009 (the date that federal lawmakers have set for "the last broadcast of conventional television.") In other words (notes the LA Times) that's the date "when analog TV signals will be turned off in favor of digital broadcasts, which offer improved pictures and more programming choices". (See here for a wikipedia backgrounder.)

The LA Times gets it (more or less) right. The Tribune-owned paper has been getting hammered by its parent company of late (see this current Coumbia Journalism Review article to understand why), but it's still able to come up with some useful and insightful editorial comments from time to time. A Times editorial from just before Christmas focuses on the downside of the Feb. 2009 deadline for the transition, especially for poor people. It reminds readers--most of whom who probably still haven't completely grasped this--"that tuning in the new signals requires either a digital TV, which the vast majority of homes don't have, or a converter box (possibly from a cable or satellite TV service) to translate the digital broadcasts into analog pictures." What's more, "with an estimated 73 million TVs in more than 30 million homes tuning in analog signals through antennas today, a lot of viewers are likely to be caught unprepared when those signals vanish."

But the Times holds that, although Congress has enacted legislation granting vouchers to help with the purchase of set-top converters, lawmakers are generally less concerned with helping poorer, unprepared citizens than with raking in the $10 billion to $30 billion of revenue that the auction of the analog spectrum could provide the U.S. Treasury. The editorial goes on:
    Washington should not let the quest for revenue override a more fundamental goal: If the high bidders in the auctions are affiliated with the local telephone and cable companies that already offer high-speed Internet service, they're not likely to use the airwaves for a cheaper version of broadband. Similarly, the high bidders might be more interested in offering movies to cellphones than a fat pipe to the Web. That's why Washington should leave some of the reclaimed frequencies open to the public without need for lease or license. With the right technologies and rules to guard against interference, these airwaves could not only enable community-based high-speed Internet services, but provide a laboratory for wireless innovation. By opening a few slivers of the spectrum to unlicensed wireless data services in 1986, the FCC made possible an explosion in Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, communication gear and services that continues to this day. The reclaimed analog TV frequencies hold even more promise. Rather than mining every bit for auction revenue, lawmakers should reserve some of the airwaves for whatever services and applications that innovative technologists and community groups can squeeze into them.

While the LA Times editorial staff makes some sensible points on the digital handover a Wall Street Journal goes off on a tangent, missing the point (at least in this case), by choosing to carp about government handouts to the poor. The WSJ piece (which requires a subscription, so you can't read the original unless you pay), points out that
    In the best government giveaway since cheese handouts from the Reagan Administration, Congress has voted to provide consumers $40 vouchers to buy digital-to-analog converter boxes. Essentially, Congress is budgeting $1.5 billion for millions of Americans who don't need the money -- so that they can keep using obsolete technology. Moreover, most people won't notice a change in 2009. They will already have digital TVs (all new sets sold after mid-2007 must be digital), or they will still be subscribing to cable or satellite services that can send digital signals even to analog TVs. One universally acknowledged truth -- even in Congress -- is that the people who gobble up many of those vouchers will not be needy. Millions of households with satellite dishes and new big-screen TVs also have at least one old analog set lying around, and each family is entitled to two $40 vouchers. As we learned when many of the non-poor joined long queues for Reagan cheese, Americans would stand in line for marmoset pelts if they were labeled "free." To encourage such grabbiness in 2009, Congress has earmarked $5 million for voucher advertising. Mark your calendars.

These comments stir up echoes of Reagan-era "welfare queen" mythmaking, and they provide some pretty strong evidence of where the Wall Street Journal editorial board's sympathies--or lack thereof--lie.

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