One of the lesser-noticed headlines out of the Obama transition today is the news that the incoming administration is now supporting the idea of delaying the shutoff of analog TV beyond the scheduled date of Feb. 17, 2009.
It may sound like a good idea at first glance. It's not, and if you'd be so kind as to follow me below the fold, I'll explain (from an insider's perspective - I work in the business) why it's actually a pretty lousy idea, and why I'm sorry to see it becoming a partisan fight.
Here's how John Podesta explained the perceived need for a delay in the letter he sent to Capitol Hill today:
"The funds provided to support the conversion are woefully inadequate. Coupon demand appears headed to a level that will exceed that authorized by Congress. In addition, the government’s programs to assist consumers through the upheaval of the conversion are inadequately funded. There is insufficient support for the problem consumers (particularly low-income, rural and elderly Americans) will experience as a result of the analog signal cutoff."
Part of this is true - there are indeed some Americans, anywhere from 1 to 5% of the current viewing audience, depending on whose numbers you trust, who currently have some level of analog TV reception (often weak and fuzzy) but who will lose access to over-the-air DTV signals.
This can be fixed, but not by leaving analog TV on the air indefinitely. A bit of tech, if I may - over the last decade, the broadcast industry has achieved something nearly impossible, by giving just about every TV station in America a second channel on which to operate a digital signal, all in the same chunk of spectrum that was once believed to be as full as it could possibly get with 1700 or so full-power analog stations.
As anyone who's ever tried to cram ten pounds of you-know-what into a five-pound bag well knows, there were compromises involved. Some digital stations aren't operating at full power yet, while others are being interfered with by nearby analog stations on the same channel. Until analog TV signs off, TV stations can't finish the job of maximizing their digital signals. And they certainly can't get started on new technologies that might allow them to extend the range of their digital signals (there's one called "distributed transmission system," or DTS, that has a lot of promise) while they're still nursing aging analog transmitters along.
If you've read this far, you've realized by now that the DTV transition doesn't involve just "flipping a switch" between analog and digital. It's a process that's been underway for literally a decade now - the first DTV signals came on the air in 1998-99 - and it's been an incredibly complex ballet juggling transmitters and antennas to get digital on the air without disrupting analog service more than necessary.
But guess what? Part of that ballet was scheduling work crews and transmitter purchases and even the budgets for transmitter power bills with that February 17, 2009 deadline in mind. In some areas, analog stations have already signed off, because elderly transmitters have failed and the decision was made not to spend the money to fix them. In others, analog transmitters are already running at reduced power as part of the conversion to digital use. Those signals won't be coming back, no matter what Congress legislates.
The financial picture for local TV stations is not good this year. Budgets are tight in the industry, as you'd expect when you consider that the #1 category of ad revenue for most local TV stations is auto dealers, and #2 is retail. Continuing analog operation will cost money, and that will have to come from somewhere.
Which brings us to that coupon program. If you got one (or two) of those $40 coupons to buy a DTV converter box, where do you think that money came from?
Here's the deal: by going digital, those 1700-some TV stations in the US can be crammed into a smaller slice of spectrum. Instead of 67 channels (2-69, minus channel 37, which isn't used for broadcast TV), it'll all fit in 49 channels (2-51, minus 37). What happens to the rest of those channels? They're in a valuable part of the spectrum, because it's ideal for mobile devices, and much of that spectrum has been sold at auction to companies like Qualcomm, which is already using much of the spectrum formerly known as TV channels 55 and 56 for the "MediaFLO" service that powers mobile TV on your cellphone, if you're on Verizon or T-Mobile.
Some of the remaining spectrum may be used for new mobile technologies, including expanded WiMax, and possibly even free nationwide WiFi. But until analog TV goes away, it won't be fully available, and the businesses that have already paid for some of that space - and whose auction revenues are funding the coupon program - aren't going to want to wait forever to get access to it.
OK, so back to the concerns of groups like Consumers Union, which endorsed the idea of delaying the transition:
"With Feb. 17 only 40 days away, we are concerned that millions of at-risk consumers, including rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country, could be left with blank television screens. Consumers have fewer resources than ever to buy the necessary equipment to regain access to essential news, information and emergency broadcasts. Against this backdrop, Congress should consider delaying the digital transition so the significant flaws in the converter box coupon program can be adequately addressed and sufficient local assistance put in place to help millions of consumers who are being forced to navigate this transition."
I agree with CU on one thing: the coupon program was flawed. There were delays in some simple things like making coupons available to residents of nursing homes and other group facilities, and the expiration dates of the coupons were set far too early, leaving some coupons to expire unused.
But as any good community organizer will tell you, there is no force stronger than procrastination. The coupons became available on January 1, 2008, 374 days ago, and the publicity around them warned, very clearly, that they were a limited-time offer and wouldn't be available forever.
The people who waited until the last second before the Feb. 17 date will just wait again until the last second before a later date - perhaps June 1, as some are discussing now.
And the broadcasters who have given up tons of airtime and publicity to get the word out about the Feb. 17 deadline aren't going to be happy about doing it all again for another deadline that might or might not hold - and about all the disruption to their schedules and business plans that a delay in the analog shutoff will bring.
For an administration that prides itself on being in the vanguard of technology, it's time to move forward, not backward. The conversion to DTV hasn't been perfect, but it's moving ahead on schedule, and throwing a last-second wrench into the works won't make it move any more smoothly.
I'll be around for the next hour or so (and then again later tonight) if people have DTV transition questions - I field plenty of them at work, so I may as well offer my services to my fellow Kossacks, too!
UPDATE: I put that poll there for a reason - I wanted to see how closely a Kossack audience approximates the national figures for TV viewership. At 72% cable/satellite penetration, we're considerably below the national average - but that's largely due, I think, to that 11% who don't have or want TV, and the 4% watching TV on the web.
The number I was most interested in is the 4% who answered the sixth option - they're still watching analog over the air and don't yet have a converter box. That DOES track the national average, and it's only those 4% who would benefit in any way from an extension of analog service. Everyone else who's actually watching TV - the 72% getting it from sources other than over-the-air, the 12% already watching OTA digital TV, and the 2% who don't care if their analog goes away - would not be affected by this proposal, if it's adopted.