Less than six weeks from now, millions of Americans will be denied access to news, information and entertainment now provided by their television sets. Having sold the airwaves now used to transmit programmed TV signals, the government has discovered that its efforts to inform consumers and to have them convert to the new technology are at best an “incomplete success.” On February 17, 2009, consumers who receive programs directly from their local broadcasters will begin seeing a snowy screen on their analog TV sets unless these sets are outfitted with digital converter boxes.
Glitches in transition plans have been apparent for some time. Imperfect information, technical problems, consumer lethargy, and others have been recently compounded by depletion of funds for coupons to subsidize digital converter boxes; by consumer cut backs on digital program sources; and, by the prospect that available supplies of converters will be exhausted in the wake of last minute buying as the deadline approaches. An indicator of the potential distress is the large (more than one million consumers) and dramatically growing (hundreds of thousands daily in the past few days) waiting list for coupons entitling consumers to discounts on retailed converter boxes.
Nobody knows for sure, but indications are that about 10% or US households are now without the necessary connections for any TV in the home, and even more have one or more sets in bedrooms, dens, or elsewhere that are not ready. While details are not known, the least among us – poor, minorities, elderly, single parent families, unemployed or underemployed, isolated homes in rural areas – will bear the brunt of the impending black out.
Advisors to the President-elect support delaying the black out as do some members of Congress and thought leaders in the private sector. There is substantial opposition to delay, but the costs of delay being cited are orders of magnitude below the costs of stripping millions of households and voters of their principal source of information and entertainment. Consumers spend more than four hours a day, or about two months a year, watching television. Senior and poor consumers have fewer options and spend even more time before the tube.
In that context, Dr. Larry F. Darby, Senior Fellow at ACI, noted: “We are talking about the certainty, not just possibility, of millions of TVs not working in American households come mid-February. Consumers and voters will be outraged and want to know why and who is to blame. Never mind the inevitable finger pointing, nobody in Washington will escape their wrath. And, rightfully so.”
Meeting the transition deadline will produce few benefits, but it will create substantial harm for American consumers. ACI urges the government to delay its plans until all consumers have had adequate opportunity to prepare for the digital transition.