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Marianne Paskowski



Why the Digital Transition Must Be Delayed

January 9, 2009 10:34 AM

This past summer I met a savvy and frugal college graduate. Having just landed his first job, he had no cable television in his first apartment.

DTV Converter Box Coupon

He also landed one of those $40 coupons to buy a digital converter box being offered by bricks-and-mortar retailers as well as online.

After extensive research, he found that most of the retailers were selling the boxes for $80, not the $40 he said the government had led him to expect. But he bought one anyhow, choosing not to subscribe to cable, a more costly proposition.

But there are millions of TV viewers who didn’t get one, and for now they cannot. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is empty-handed, having spent its $1.34 billion budget, and has started a waiting list for those who still need coupons.

Clearly the country, in the throes of a deep and long recession, is not ready for this transition. The nation’s new unemployment figures came out today, showing a 7.2% loss of jobs last month.

Clearly people without jobs and without cable should not be pressured into subscribing to cable if they can’t get one of these coupons.

Pull Quote

That reality is not lost upon President-elect Barack Obama, who has more important things to worry about, like fixing the broken economy and dealing with escalating tensions in Gaza.

So what’s the big rush? I know the new spectrum is supposed to be auctioned off to wireless phone companies or to be used by first responders like police and fire fighters.

But think about this: I once had a reporter work for me who said, “Deadlines are artificial and meant to be broken. If the story isn’t there yet, it just isn’t there.”

In retrospect, he’s right. In this case, the digital story is just not ready for primetime.

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Comments (48)

Jason:

Hey M,
The bigger problem for people like me, who relies on the rabbit ears for grainy locals when I go home to see Mom and Dad is that the signals of the digital channels in rural America blow. I know in markets as large as Minneapolis that lesser affiliates are not going near as far as before, making cable almost necessary for people. At home, we are on the border of two markets. One is somewhat stronger than the other, but strangely the weaker market is the one that covers our area better due to some state lines and other politics which I won't bore you with. The bottom line, the stronger market gives us CBS, ABC, and NBC quite strongly. We have no PBS coverage (which we could care less about). MyNet is on a digital sub of the strong CBS. Fox and CW do not reach us from the closer market and marginally reach us from the weaker market. Therefore we can get our Vikings games about 65% of the time through digital. The parents are looking now into buying another pricey pair of rabbit ears so they can get their games. Ridiculous. In the past, weak transistor sites were set up by affiliates so they could reach fringe areas better. Those all go away with digital because the transistor sites are not equipped to go digital. I for one would like the government to allow those to at least stay up.

Take care,
J

joe:

Hi Marianne,
Good topic. I totally agree that it has to be delayed. And maybe for awhile. How can we expect everyone to change to digital when they are running out of coupons???? And I agree that people should not be forced to get cable. As someone who works for a tv station and sells against local cable, it is in our best interest for those people to not be forced to get cable.

Viewership has been declining every year and we are in a recession. According to Nielsen, 10.3% of homes were not ready for the switch in November. Can TV afforrd another 10% decline in viewership?

It was nice to see Obama weigh in on it, even though it should definitely take a back seat to the other major issues he will be taking on in a litle over a week.

Bill:

This is pure unadulterated BS.

First, watching TV is not an unadulterated right. It's like saying studios couldn't stop producing VHS tapes until the government paid for each person with a VCR to buy a DVD player.

What "extensive research" did he do? An Echostar converter is $40. Zenith's STBs have been $60 at Circuit City since last January, the same box under the Insignia brand name has sold for the same price at Best Buy since then and they carry an Apex for $55. You can also find these same boxes for the same price at Amazon along with boxes costing even less.

In all seriousness, I don't even know where you could spend $80 on a DTV converter. I've never, ever seen one at that price point.

Why the big rush? Because the frequency spectrum used for NTSC has already been auctioned off and businesses have uses for that spectrum.

Yes, even in today's economy.

As far as Jason's comments, "pricy rabbit ears?"

What, $10? $25? Or are they being lied to by a retailer and being told they need a "new digital antenna" to go with their STB?

Doug:

The reason the government ran out of coupons is that they only printed up enough for the needy. They apparently forgot to account for the greedy.

But what can you really expect of human nature, after a whole generation has been raised expecting a hand-out. The government is supposed to supply a safety net for those who need it, not a free ride for those who want it.

Doug:

I just checked pricegrabber.com -- the most expensive converter is 48.99 and the cheapest is 40.01

Now if we just figure a way to loan this savvy and frugal kid a whole penny! Or maybe he could find on in the street that someone was too lazy to pick up.

No, wait. Let's delay the digital switch instead.

Scott:

91% of the public is ready. Flip the switch and when 8 million boxes go dark, people will have to figure out how to solve the problem.

Tom:

20 percent or so of the population is functionality illiterate.

Millions of Americans are malnourished or undernourished.

Unemployment is spiking.

The Mideast is erupting - again - while we still have too many troops in the wrong place (Iraq) and not enough in the right one (Afghanistan).

And we're really worried about this? Really? I know those of us in the media industry obsess about ourselves. But really? This requires immediate government action?

Jane:

I'm so tired of the whining. Set aside the timing and the coupon program for the moment. It's $40 people. And they've had years to save up for that converter box. College boy probably spent double that on his cell phone plan with unlimited text messaging for one month. As for these other 6.8% that aren't ready, what's the problem? Did you miss the thousands of ads, editorials, and announcements? Can't find $40 over the last few years to by the box? Figured you would wait until the last the minute and let someone else solve your problem?

Timeline was set, technology is available, announcements were made. Problem nowadays is that people don't have the discipline to stick to it. Easier to delay the deadline or ask the gov't to pay for it. So what if 93.2% of the country were responsible enough to get it done on time. 5 years just isn't enough time to find $40 and buy a little black box.

Cry me a river.

Marianne Paskowski:

Guys,
Some interesting points you all raise here about the spectrum already being sold, but that argument falls on deaf ears like the college student who decided to do without cable.

And don't forget the seniors on fixesd now diminishing incomes who could care less about cable.

As for this student I mentioned said what he says about the search converter boxes, I have to believe what he says, he lives in a small town so who knows what his options really are?

Delaying the conversion to digital is a must if there are not enough coupons. And when they are they available they should cover the cost of seeing over-the-air broadcast signals.

If our government can constantly tweak the TARP program as it has, why not take a few months and get this one far smaller issue right?

I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying do it right, and for now problems remain.You can't refute the point that the government has run out of coupons.

Thanks for all of your posts...mp


Marianne Paskowski:

Jane,

I agree that the related industries did a good job of warning people about the transition for a long time.

But so what? I think it hard for all of up here to relate because we're in the business and can't wait to see the newly purchased spectrum at work and enhance our businesses.

But your lack of empathy for the less fortunate is amazing. Go to an inner city or a poor rural community and look at how people are struggling to put food on the table. Forty-dollars is not chump change to them, it's survival.

m

KB:

>>Go to an inner city or a poor rural community and look at how people are struggling to put food on the table. Forty-dollars is not chump change to them, it's survival

We are not talking about depriving people of food or medicine. We're talking about their ability to watch freakin' Dancing With the Stars.

My God, what idiotic reasoning.

Jeff Mulligan:

Marianne,

Obama is smart enough to know that when millions of TV screens go fuzzy with digital changeover, there will be a political uprising rivaling the public reaction to the nation's many serious problems. That's why he's concerned.

Bush and his incompetent administration goofusses were too stupid to know that. I understand that they even mailed coupons out via bulk mail, which need not be delivered immediately, leaving many consumers with one-to-a-customer coupons that had already expired.

It's just more evidence that those "What Me Worry" cartoons from 2000, equating "W" with Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman character, were right on the money. Look at all the misery and death, yes death, that Bush's criminally negligent stupidity has caused! He makes even the worst of his presidential predecessors look Solomonic

Jeff

Cruiser:

Yo, Blondie --

Instead of coupons for TV converter boxes, the government should be giving out coupons for books and instructions for turning older TV sets into aquariums.

Cruisin not bruisin

Marianne Paskowski:

KB,
If you read the NYT's op-ed piece by two former FCC chairmen, William Kennard and Michael Powell you might think differently.

As many as 19 million households that do not subscribe to cable or satellite will wake up to black screens on Feb. 17.

Forget about the coupons for a moment, let's talk about the supply of converter boxes in the market.

These two FCC former chairs counter that to date 18 million converter boxes were purchased using coupons, and that there are only 11 million converters remain in inventory.

They estimate total demand, counting unused coupons, I surmise, is expected to be 33 million to 60 million units. So do the math, there will be a shortage. They claim that 46 million requests for coupons have come in, so they're probably right, there will not be enough boxes, on top of it being too late to ask for a coupon.

So KB, a little empathy for those TV viewers who watching "Dancing With the Stars," instead of reading the NYT's.
m

Marianne Paskowski:

Jeff,

You bring up a good point about the coupons being sent bulk mail, slowest method of snail mail.

I've read by the time some people who applied for the coupons that were good for 90 days, found when they received them the coupons had already expired.

On top of that, because they presumably got one, and they did, an expired one, they were disqualified to reapply.

Our government at work. I don't fault broadcasters who invested heavily into the future only to have their government fail them again.

For now a telecommunications dust up can be prevented from becoming a Katrina for the broadcast industry.

Whether the NAB likes this unfair treatment or not, it's a new game on the Beltway and they have to play ball here...m


Marianne Paskowski:

Cruiser,

Creative as always, I see, so let it know how it goes. I've been reading elsewhere that others suggest broadcasters just throw another $20 million at the coupon program by creating a call-in center, something that was supposed to happen with the original funding, but never really got out of the gate.

What good would that do at this stage, if there are no coupons and a potential shortage of converter boxes?

That's why I say, a delay won't be that bad. At worst the broadcasters will have to rethink their February Sweeps plans and figure out how to write off cap/ex costs they already incurred for the Feb. 17 deadline and push off profit from the digital signals to another quarter?

I'm not being glib, that's not an easy task for these businesses during these economic times, but realistically, what else can they do?

m

Texas Tom:

KB, let me add to Marianne Paskowski's comments regarding the poor and television. The poor do need to find ways of being entertained -- or do you expect them to be just staring at the walls in boredom, because poor people deserve to be punished by having nothing other than the most basic needs of feed and shelter met?

Several years back, a former employer got into deep financial trouble -- and the end result was that I went from having a very good income to having virtually no income for an extended period of time. Since I was not a cable/satellite subscriber and had a decent antenna on my home, I was able to continue enjoying the programming available through our broadcast television service, free of charge -- after all, I already owned the television, antenna, etc, which made broadcast television the absolutely best bargain available.

I got about the business of going back to school, graduated, performed a job hunt, and returned to work, so I'm happy to say that while I still appreciate the value of broadcast television, I've now got other options as well (still no cable or satellite, but I buy plenty of DVDs). But with that experience in my recent past, I can certainly feel empathy for someone who is struggling to make ends meet and wants to be able to enjoy a little bit of free escapist entertainment, whichever particular programs they may watch. And I'd suggest, KB, that maybe you need to soften your heart just a little bit so that you can feel some sympathy for those who are struggling in today's lousy economy...

That said, I'm not enthusiastic about delaying the analog shutoff, since that's going to cause no end of grief for broadcasters who have equipment deliveries set and installation crews scheduled based on the current transition date. But I think that it is appropriate for the federal government to step in and do a bit more to ensure that any dislocations from the transition are handled as efficiently and quickly as possible -- and that does include looking out for broadcast stations' viewers.

Marianne Paskowski:

Texas Town,

Thanks for sharing your story and the need for some empathy here.

You get what's going on with the broadcasters' problem, as do I, and this delay could possibly hurt the economy more than fix it.

But this is a political hot potato, and the NAB has very little time to state its financial case.

Given that, they will have to cope for the sake of not even Main Street but for some rural PO box.

Not pretty, and we can thank the outgoing Bush team for yet another mess. But the transition cannot become a distraction to more pressing problems Obama faces.

m

Marilyn:

I agree that alot about the transition is skewed up, including the basic count of how large the problem really is. You all assume that everyone of the 7 MM unprepared HHs are TV junkies on every set. Not true. If they were, they would have done something to get prepared. I agree it's unfortunate we didn't focus on the poor and elderly who genuiunely need assistance and let the greedy take all the coupons, but I don't believe even the majority of the unprepared fall in these categories.

Tom:

Marianne, thanks for engaging in the comments. (Too many 'bloggers' don't - which means they aren't really bloggers.)

But let's bat this around a bit more. 19 million? It's a big number. But any of us come up with bigger numbers for other unsolved problems that require government action.

And let's talk about a more fundamental flaw in the logic - namely the people like my mom who will buy a converter box and *still* won't receive a usable signal. She lives in a far-flung exurb of Minneapolis; my siblings and I kicked in to buy her a converter box for Christmas (only after she vetoed our idea of picking her up a spiffy 32-inch HDTV. She's *such* the Midwestern frugalist).

I'm willing to bet a not-insubstantial sum that once she (or, rather, my brother) plugs in the box, she won't be able to receive at least half of the over-the-air signals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul DMA. I'll further wager that she won't get at least one, and maybe two, of the Big Four affiliates. She's right at, and probably past, the ragged edge of the Digital Cliff.

Since we've already said "We, the people, are going to defend your right to access television signals!" do we now owe her some extra remedy (free cable? a free dish?) because, gosh darn it, those digital signals just don't travel as far as the analog ones?

We can tie ourselves into knots over the issue. With all due respect to my colleagues in television journalism, let's remember what this is: Merely one of dozens of sources of news and information, and a medium that is primarily about entertainment. A small proportion of the audience that will be orphaned come mid-February. Guess what? People are ingenious. They'll find answers, or - quell horreur! - they're live without.

Let's allow - and even insist that - the new administration focus on issues more pressing than "I want my Idol!"

Respectfully,

-tgd

Marianne Paskowski:

Marilyn,

Good point about TV junkies and maybe these people aren't. But I would bet many of them just grew up with free over the air TV and that's all they want. Hopefully they're old enough to collect their Social Security because that, too, will be gone in another 40 years.

And here's another thing to ponder, do you know that there are still millions of online users still on dial up services?

Thanks for dropping in and please come back....m

Marianne Paskowski:

Hi Tom,

The industry doesn't own your mom a free cable subscription or a dish, just a coupon and converter box that work. That's the deal, right?

Here's my point, there are too many prominent groups, two former FCC officials, PBS, cable programmers who think this rocket isn't ready for launch. I'm sure they all have their own special interests.

Thanks for chiming in, and just keep jumping into the chat. I played hooky this afternoon, so I'm on and playing catch up here....m

P.S. Feel free to suggest ides for future blogs, I get my best ideas from our readers.

Bill:

One other reason to delay the transition, and one that everyone seems to forget: Every so often, we lose power here in the suburban NY area. When we do, I trot out our trusty old 5" black and white battery-powered set that we keep around for emergency information. On February 17, that set will turn into a doorstop. Has anyone seen a battery-powered converter box, or a battery-powered ATSC TV for that matter? And don't tell me I can use my laptop with a USB tuner; laptop batteries don't last long enough to get you through an emergency, and you can't toss them out and put in fresh ones like you can with a typical battery-powered TV.

When the storms hit and the utility poles fall, over-the-air broadcast is the only way for the public to get information. However, those signals are useless without receivers.

Yes, I got my coupons and bought my converter boxes months ago. I'm going to pull one of them apart and jury-rig a battery supply this weekend.

Chi-town Mike:

Bill - You wanna know where you can spend $80 on a converter box? Go to CircuitCity.com and search for "digital converter box" there you will see that with their Firedog service package it cost $80+. Many would probably laugh at that, but I've seen people in CC setting up DTV appointments with Firedog even though the instructions are painfully simple.


Should the launch get push back - YES! But I doubt that it will... Remember this launch was supposed to happen in 2005. Since '05 it was pushed back countless times, with the '09 deadline as THE final deadline compromise. Although the '09 deadline feels like when Microsoft rolls out an OS where everyone needs to find their own ways to fix what shouldn't have been launched. For those without a coupon I wouldn't be surprised if Walmart or cheap Chinese knockoff boxes end up being their solution to this mess.


Then again without any decent network TV shows on the air and the news reporting how bad the economy is every day, maybe having a black box sitting around for a while might be a good thing...

Marianne Paskowski:

Bill,

Sounds like your 5 inch, battery operated TV will soon be toast.

Let us know how you experiment goes...m

Marianne Paskowski:

Chi,
Yes it does sound crazy to ready a five inch battery operated set by spending $80 for CC's Firedog kit.

When the power goes out, I'm more concerned about my furnace and the contents of my refrigerator than the blather on TV.

So Bill really needs a portable radio and just ride out those storms...m


Tom in Plano:

Bill: "Has anyone seen a battery-powered converter box, or a battery-powered ATSC TV for that matter?"

Portable ATSC TVs do exist -- Best Buy sold a couple under their Insignia brand in 2007, and Radio Shack currently has at least one model available. But they're not cheap (around $200), battery life is short (100 minutes), and the built-in antennas work only if you're very close to the transmitter (connecting a decent indoor antenna does help).

I've read that a converter box does exist that will run off of 12 V, but I have never seen it for myself, nor do I know anything about price or availability.

Andy S.:

There is a converter box made by Winegard that works with an external 9-volt battery pack. I read about it right here in TV Week's Digital Transition blog. I'm sure anyone who's interested can find that post simply enough.

As for the issue of delaying the transition, I sympathize with points made on both sides. Whenever they ultimately flip the switch on this, there will be problems. Right now I'm leaning toward those who say let's do it on the present timeline and get it over with. Once it's done, the industry will have a clearer picture of how serious and widespread the issues really are, and they'll have more incentive to deal with them in a timely manner.

Marianne Paskowski:

Tom & Andy,
Thanks for helping our friend Bill out here. And to Andy, don't agree at all. What if all those TV sets went dark on Feb. 17?

Think of all the people who wouldn't be subjected to all the headlines about how the economy is likely to get worse than better?

And to the others that say you can might a $40 converter box readily, not necessarily so.

Got an email from a reader on Cape Cod, a former H-P executives who said he couldn't find one here for under $60.

He got the coupon and was going to get the tuner, if though he didn't need one just to go through the experience which he, a geek, found frustrating.

He didn't redeem the coupon, as a result, and I wonder just how many other unredeemed coupons are floating around?

It's all so odd, as I segue. Tooling around in the car today, I heard Obama's speech about job creation, and he mentioned expanding broadband jobs, even though he thinks the transition to digital right now is not a good thing.

This guy has a ton of huge problems on his plate, but he has to start someplace.Is this the place?

Don't know....m

Marilyn:

After reading through all the pros and cons posited by you and your mighty readers, I still don't see how postponing the digital transition would be much of anything. Procrastinators will still procrastinate whenever the transition occurs. Blank screens might be the only thing to get them to move.

Marianne Paskowski:

Marilyn,
Now that I agree with. Funny even after the news that the transition might be delayed, still seeing TV ads reminding viewers of the day.

My pal Harry Jessell over tvnewsday.com wrote a very good piece on the economics of broadcasters and what delaying this transition would do to them.

Still he advised broadcasters not to make enemies with a new administration.

Thanks for your post...m

Nat Kayle:

If we wait until everybody is ready we'll be running analog forever!
Some people aren't going to act until their TV stops working.

Marianne Paskowski:

Nat,
Here's another thought, the gov could just extend the redemption time on the unused coupons out there.

m

Bill:

Sorry, the "poor college student living in a small town" statement doesn't wash, Marianne.

Are you actually going to tell us this college kid doesn't buy anything from Amazon? That he couldn't check BestBuy.com, JandR.com or the websites of any of a hundred other electronic retailers, all selling converter boxes for $60 or less, including shipping?

You know as well as I do that this is just an easy thing people can whine about, and whether the transition is 2/17 or 2/17/2017, when analog is shut off the broadcasters are going to get calls from people screaming they weren't told and saying they can't afford a converter box.

Marianne Paskowski:

Hi Bill,
Think the college kid thought the $40 coupon was the full price, apparently he didn't know that the $40 coupon was to be used "toward" the purchase.

He's not the only one, heard the same story from a former H-P executive who couldn't find one for $40, either.

Point being, he didn't procrastinate, he was confused.

M

Let us be honest here and now about the digitalization hysteria.

It's all about commerce. Selling flat screens, HD, cameras and all the peripherals that go with digitizing our video broadcast industry.

I like HD, we could have waited, gone with two thousand lines of resolution like Francis Ford Coppola and others suggested years ago...but, NO, we took the quicker, more profitable way to what has proliferated around us.

In a few years we'll do this again and get to the two thousand lines, (or better). Know it, it WILL happen.

The commercial viability of the broadcast spectrum that will be opened up when analog TV goes bye-bye, has many global communication companies foaming at the mouth with their insatible appetites for the profits they will reap.

But we have over sixty years of channels 2-13, etc.. and millions of us can not get TV any other way.

It is ironic that digital broadcast signals are such that you either get them, or you don't. Very white and black with no gray area...metaphoric for our times...you're in or you're out.

The race-to-the-DTV/HD World has been to get people to buy and the billions in sales say they have, but there remain millions who have not, can not, don't understand, or will not.

Some compatible time is required, perhaps that should be refered to as compasionable time.
Peter Bright

Marianne Paskowski:

Peter,
If the country keeps losing jobs at the pace it is, nobody is going to buy any of the new toys.

Marianne

Myke :

Marianne,
Broadcasters are the biggest losers in this scenario. I can't speak for every station in America, but continuing to broadcast in both analog and digital past Feb. 17 is a considerable expense that is not in the budget...tens of thousands of dollars a month! Stations been planning for this for more than ten years. We've done our part in getting the word out to people. We've done seminars, special radio call-ins...everything the government has asked. We've spent millions getting ready for the switch to digital. To delay it now could cripple some stations in a bad economy.
The government coupon program is a disaster, and congress need to pour more money into it now. But if this shutoff date is delayed...the results could be disasterous to the entire industry.

Marianne Paskowski:

Myke,
I totally agree that broadcasters did their part. The government is to blame here.

But if TV sets go blank in non dish or cable households, who will those viewers blame?

TV stations don't deserve that black eye.

m

Dee:

I have to reply to Bill. Watching TV IS our right - these airwaves belong to the people of the United States.

Dee:

KB in other words - let them eat cake.
I am shocked by the attitudes I am seeing here.

Marianne Paskowski:

Dee,
Well watching freed TV used to be a free right, it no longer is that. Kind of reminds me of the Patriot Act, post 9/11, that limits are personal freedoms.

Of course it's apples and oranges, but people, or the government, I should say own the airwaves.
m

robert brown:

i think it should be held off.and let the people know the real truth

robert brown:

i think it should be held off.and let the people know the real truth

Marianne Paskowski:

Robert,
There's nothing secretive here about the truth. The government ran out of coupons, and the demand for converters will outpace the supply, probably.
M

Dalava:

What I want to know is why are we transitioning in the first place? Is it helping the planet? I don't understand why I need to go out and buy some box or some new tv. Really now why?

Marianne Paskowski:

Dalava,

To catch up with the rest of the world, the USA is no longer the economic driver, and if this is done right, job creation, and more important, to free up the air waves for first responders.

Thanks for your post......m

Dalava:

Oh like if I need help with the police, my tv will call them?

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