Monday, February 02, 2009


TV, or not TV: that is the digital

You all know, of course, that broadcast TV is scheduled to switch from analogue to digital on the 17th of February. You all know, of course, that the switch only affects the old style broadcast system, the one that goes through the air and is picked up by an antenna. You know that, right? If you have cable, satellite, FIOS, or any other system like that, you do not have to worry about this. In fact, you don’t even need to worry about it if you use an antenna, but you have a new TV that already has a digital tuner.

Your service provider might be doing some digital conversions of its own — mine has been switching selected channels to digital for a while now — but that’s purely its own decision, independent of the well publicized broadcast switch, and it’s responsible for informing you and making sure you have what you need.

But how many people still use antennas? Doesn’t everyone have cable (or some other piped-in system) by now? It’s easy for someone who lives where I do to ask that question: I can get nothing over the air but snow and hiss without some serious structure on my roof, and so it’s pretty obvious that everyone around here would get their TV service through a service provider. But in New York City, and in other cities, the situation is different.

First, the cities are closer to the broadcasters, and set-top antennas usually suffice to pull in the standard local stations. Users won’t get Bravo and E!, and one wonders how they can survive thus, but that’s how it is. Second, the cities are home to more poor people than the suburbs are, and, well, if one doesn’t have to pay $30 to $50 a month to watch Grey’s Anatomy, one can use that money for, oh, say, food.

The government even set up a plan to help people with the conversion: it offered coupons to defray $40 of the cost of a converter box. Unfortunately, it screwed that up. It defined bizarre rules about how to get and use the coupons. It didn’t anticipate that people would not understand who needed the converters, so, because many people who didn’t need the coupons got them, they ran out. And it made no allowance for the concept that people would not be able to figure out what to do — what to buy, how to install it, and so on.

The result of all this is that the government’s determined that the 17th of February will bring disaster. Grey’s Anatomy, along with All My Children and Wheel of Fortune, will be unwatchable by the myriad Americans who will not have the right setup.

The government is right about this.

They have decided that the answer is to delay the conversion by four months, to give them time to get yet more publicity out and more coupons printed and sent (and funded), and to give consumers time to buy their converter boxes and get them installed. The Senate has passed the delay, and the House is working on it.

The government is wrong about this.

I have sympathy for people who, despite more than three years of planning and publicity, still don’t know what’s happening. I have sympathy for people who don’t understand what they need to do. I have sympathy for people who have bought their converters but have no idea how to install them. And I realize that even when they’re installed, we won’t be sure they’re all working right until the cutover happens and we find out how many TVs don’t work, though they have converters on them.

But I also know, from many years of experience with these sorts of things, that changing the cutover date will make little difference. The problems will be there whenever the conversion happens. And the 17 February date has been set and publicized for so long that any change will cause a great deal of confusion on top of that.

Let me repeat that key point: we’ll have about as many problems on 12 June as we will on 17 February. That’s because no change like this goes smoothly. Any such change makes a lot of things break. We will never be “prepared” for the change.

The best we can do is be prepared for the aftermath.

Rather than worrying about delaying the conversion — and the inevitable avalanche of difficulties — we should be setting up infrastructure for accepting reports of problems and sending out help for fixing them. We want to create jobs? By all means: let’s hire an army of technicians who can go out to people’s houses and install converter boxes, or fix failed installations.

Then let’s do the cutover, deal with the problems, and move on to the next issue.

Update, 10 PM: This video should answer the question Thomas brought up in the comments. [Hat tip to Educated Guesswork for the link.]

Update, 4 Feb: The delay has been passed in both houses of Congress, and the president plans to sign it. Let the confusion come.


Thomas J. Brown said...

let’s hire an army of technicians who can...install converter boxes, or fix failed installations.

Maybe it's because I have a degree in filmmaking, but how do you not install a converter box properly? Mine came with directions that I didn't even bother to look at.

I completely agree, though. Make the switch, deal with the stragglers, and then let's never talk about it again. I'm sick of seeing condescending public service announcements that talk about it.

Barry Leiba said...

I don't know why, but some people do manage to have problems with all things electronic, however simple you and I might find them.

But, then, I can't sing two notes, and there are people who can't understand that.

Laurie said...

My parents actually still use an antenna, albeit a small one that sits in the attic. They don't get cable out in the Indiana countryside, but then they've never had it even when they lived places where it was available. They started looking for a new TV over two years ago, partly because of this, and ended up with a new 37" flatscreen, which they think is enormous. They can actually see things on it.

To realize what a huge step this is for my 1/2 Scottish father (yes, his mother was from Scotland) - they keep the same TV for years and years and years. We didn't get a color TV until 1975, and the picture on the black and white TV we had was so bad that when we watched Laugh In, we thought Ruth Buzzi had a hole in her head (or at least a black dot on her forehead) because we couldn't see her hairnet. My mother finally put her foot down because we couldn't see the colors in the Jacques Cousteau specials.

They're not as bad as that grandma, though. Yet.