I Want My DTV?

[Peter Suderman]
There's a fair bit of confusion out there about the upcoming transition from analog to digital* broadcast TV. So it's too bad that today's Post story on how some TV viewers might be affected by the transition doesn't do much to clarify the situation. For instance, here's Joel Kelsey of the Consumer's Union worrying over how low-income elderly folks will handle the transition:

"The elderly population is different in that they're less tech-savvy," Kelsey said. "Will they be able to move big TV sets, and will they know how to hook up the converter boxes?"

The last line in the piece quotes an elderly man living in Arlington:

"I may not even be alive by the time this thing happens!" Navarin said jokingly. "I hate to spend $800 on a new TV when these are perfectly good. I just don't think it's fair."

Both of these quotes seem meant to suggest that some will need to buy expensive new TVs as a result of the switch. But that's simply not the case. Most TV antennas now in use will be able to pick up the digital signals and display them with the help of a fairly inexpensive digital-to-analog signal converter box. What's more, those boxes, which typically only run about $60 to begin with (you can find them for $50 or so if you do some bargain hunting), are being subsidized via a $1.5 billion federal program that entitles everyone to $40 off up to two converters—putting the cost at about $20, not $800, and meaning that neither the elderly nor anyone else will have to buy bulky new sets.

Kelsey's concern that some TV viewers might not know how to hook up converter boxes is slightly more legitimate, but still I doubt there's much to worry about. Anyone who can figure out how to plug an antenna into a TV and adjust it so that picture comes in reasonably well can probably figure out how to connect the antenna to a box which then connects to the TV.

Here's another quote from the story, this one from Margaret Pully, who runs a community for low-income seniors in D.C.:

"TV is their lifeline to the world. Apparently it's not a free thing anymore," she said. "This is certainly an expense we weren't expecting."

Except TV, even over-the-air TV, has never been "free." You've always had to buy the equipment—the TV and antenna—if you wanted to pick up over-the-air broadcasts. A $10 or $20 one-time upgrade, it seems to me, is not unreasonable, even for someone on a tight budget. (Just as a reference point, that's about half what it costs for a 7-day rail pass on Metro.)

Now, I tend to think that there's no reason to subsidize access to broadcast TV in the first place. But setting that aside, maybe it would be fair to complain about the switch -- except that there's already a billion-dollar plus federal subsidy already in place (and one that's hugely wasteful in who it subsidizes at that). And I might be more sympathetic to worries about confusion amongst the elderly—the story reports that 73 percent of older consumers aren't aware of the subsidy—if the transition weren't still almost a year away, and broadcasters and cable companies hadn't committed roughly $1.2 billion to explaining the transition to customers, and the FCC hadn't already set aside $2.5 million to start their education efforts and requested $20 million more.

It's not like there's not a substantial amount of money, taxpayer and private, being spent to make sure that a relatively small number of people keep receiving a few channels on their aging TV sets. It's irritating, but probably politically necessary, that much of this money had to be spent at all, but the benefits from the spectrum it releases are almost certainly worth it. But as it stands, I'm not really sure what else anyone thinks ought to be done.

*Fixed to say "digital broadcast TV."