Transition to digital TV an expensive joke

SURPRISE! WE ARE NOT GOING to complete the digital transition in time to throw out our old analog TV sets by the federally imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2006.

That’s the conclusion of a Congressional Budget Office study that was quietly released last week. The remarkable thing about the report is that it is the first time a federal document has acknowledged that the so-called digital transition schedule is a joke.

In order to meet the deadline, the CBO report states, “DTV technology must work as promised, DTV stations must initiate broadcasts soon, cable systems must retransmit the programming of digital broadcasters, and consumers must adopt new technology quickly.”

OK so let’s see where we are so far.

  • The first generation of digital sets, which cost $5,000 or more, can’t reliably pick up an over-the-air signal and can’t be hooked up to a cable system.

  • Major network stations in New York and Chicago are having trouble finding space to build towers for their digital antennas.

  • Cable systems are refusing to carry most digital broadcast signals.

  • Only 40,000 digital sets had been sold by the end of July.

The so-called “digital transition” was a fiction from the start — few thought the vast majority of Americans would spend a total of $150 billion on digital televisions in just seven years.

At the end of the transition period, broadcasters are supposed to turn off their current analog signal, rendering obsolete almost every TV set now in use.

The fraudulently short deadline was written into law so that Congress could claim that it was just lending broadcasters billions of dollars worth of airwaves for a relatively short time.

“It’s a loan, not a gift,” is the mantra of broadcasters and their favorite members of Congress. But they fail to point out that it’s an interest-free loan worth billions of dollars.

The federal government says it’s time for broadcasters to give up their analog channel when 85% of TV households in a market can receive a digital signal from every local TV station.

CONGRESS ASSUMED THAT CABLE would ease the transition by providing set-top boxes that would convert digital signals for display on regular analog sets.

But that is a flawed theory, the CBO points out. First, fewer than 70% of homes subscribe to cable. Second, there is no guarantee that cablers will carry every broadcaster’s digital channel.

Congress approved the giveaway at a time when stations in medium-sized markets are going for more than $100 million.

The cellular telephone industry vigorously opposed giving the airwaves to broadcasters. It told the Federal Communications Commission and Congress that the booming wireless communications industry was willing to buy the rights to use the frequencies.

It should be no surprise that some broadcasters such as Sinclair plan to use their digital windfall to offer paging and digital data services.

WINNING FREE DIGITAL AIRWAVES for TV stations was one of the biggest victories in the history of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. During the digital debate, the NAB, along with the major networks and station groups, spent millions in lobbying fees and campaign donations.

The billion-dollar giveaway was done in the name of the public interest. But there is something decadent about setting aside billions of dollars of public resources so that people can get a better TV picture.

Despite the huge windfall to a very prominent special interest group, there has been relatively little attention paid to the issue on TV news programs.

Bill Moyers pointed this out on his recent PBS special on the First Amendment, which demonstrated that people who control big corporations also control speech.

Network producers I talked to said it was just too complicated an issue to cover on television.

But Warren Beatty summed it up pretty neatly during one of his raps in the political satire “Bulworth.”

“How come they got these airwaves? They are the people’s, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they be worth $70 billion to the public today? If some money-grubbing Congress didn’t give them away for big campaign money — it’s hopeless, you see.”

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