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Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Big Digital Changeover: The FCC Preaches to the Not-Quite-Yet-Converted

A new term has crept into the American lingo: "converter box." This is the device that will allow the primordial part of the population (and that includes me) -- the portion which does not subscribe to cable or satellite nor owns a new television set -- to be able to get TV reception after analog signals are discarded for digital.
Remember the old TV show, The Outer Limits?
"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. ... We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to ... The Outer Limits."
And reaches, perhaps, to dead air. Or, I'm told, more likely a snowstorm on the screen instead of a picture.
The great adventure of switching analog to digital has been in the works for years. But despite a huge push to inform the viewers of the land, the imminent switchover has taken millions of Americans by surprise. You'd think people were being distracted by other things -- like hustling to pay the mortgage, avoiding creditors, ducking the landlord, feeding their families, finagling a way to keep their jobs, and not being thrown out onto the street.
So Congress pushed back the deadline to shut down analog television signals in favor of digital until June 12.
This delay cut it pretty close to the original deadline of Feb. 17.
The Republicans in the House had already delayed the delay.
I shudder to think of where all those unwanted, antiquated, analogged TV sets might be dumped. Off the Jersey Shore? Or shipped straightaway to the burgeoning electronic wastelands in Africa.
Oh, that's another term that's new to a lot of folks: "analog." Most of us did not know that the world was divided into two camps: analog and digital.
I thought the world was divided into "on" and "off." This is awfully complicated for Luddites like me.
In the classic film, The Manchurian Candidate, Lawrence Harvey (as Raymond Shaw), observes: "There are two kinds of people in this world: Those that enter a room and turn the television set on, and those that enter a room and turn the television set off."
That's right. On and off. Ah, yes, life was simpler in 1962.
Gail Collins lambasted the way the government has bungled the changeover in her column for The New York Times (Jan. 30):
People who needed a converter box were supposed to request a $40 coupon, which could be used toward the purchase. The coupon was then sent to them by third-class mail — an interesting choice which sometimes meant the coupons, which expire in three months, did not arrive for four to eight weeks. The lucky recipient could then go to an electronics store, find the right kind of box, take it home and install it. (Just for fun, imagine the oldest member of your family doing this.)
The Republicans in the House ostensibly wanted the digital changeover right away because it means more revenue for the government.
I have my doubts. I get calls from cable companies champing at the bit for my business because so many consumers are signing up for cable or satellite service in order to avoid this converter box mishegoss. It's too much to think about. Quite a boondoggle.
Writes Ms. Collins:
In 2005, Congress voted to end analog broadcasting. The impetus was to raise money for the Bush tax cuts by selling off the emptied space. (Bad) But it also freed up lots of room for better Internet reception and public safety communication. (Good).
If you believe that, I've got three or four bridges to sell you. Politicians are constantly pitching us things based on the good that it will do us. It's malarkey.
I have deeper suspicions. It's more nefarious. I think the converter boxes might be used to convert us to something else. A religious conversion, perhaps, aimed at the so-called "under-served" parts on the citizenry. Now that President Obama has established an Office for Faith-Based Initiatives, my paranoiac visions might have more credence. Do we really know what these converter boxes are all about? If I get one, will I suddenly be compelled to watch Pat Robertson's 700 Club, broadcast in a dazzling diadem of a digital picture? I see it now. I can imagine thousands of enraptured, and otherwise disaffected Americans, swooning amid the switchover euphoria, standing at the precipice of a cliff, clutching their converter boxes, looking skyward, shouting to the heavens, "Where Is God?"
Let me catch my breath. Such exhilaration.
Oh, Gail Collins had more to say about those coupons:
Needless to say, the Republican-controlled Congress did not consider anything that socialistic in 2005. No, our plan was so deeply privatized that one DTV converter box retailer hired Joe the Plumber as a spokesman.
... Did I mention that once the government ran out of coupons, no new ones could be issued until the old ones expired? Or that people who didn’t manage to cash their coupons in before the expiration date couldn’t ask for a replacement?
Yes, I confess this happened to me. No coupon, no box, nowhere to go. I am now without a real TV identity, drifting between analog and digital, a man without a TV country.
I am bereft. I might take these useless rabbit ears, and try them out as a divining rod, searching for spindrift treasures in the landfill where those old, discarded television sets now reside.
I do like the idea, though, of Congress delaying action on this. Congress should be busying itself with delaying action on more things. Maybe on all things. Oh wise ones, just give us more time -- more time to pay to pay the mortgage, feed the family, delay the company's plans to lay us off. Give me Lara Spencer or give me death.
Henry Miller once wrote, "If you're in a restaurant, and don't have any money to pay the bill -- then keep ordering. You'll think of something."
Any ideas?
I have one. Let's replace Tim Geithner with Bernie Madoff. Maybe he can steal all of our money back.

Bruce Bellingham is a San Francisco columnist for the SF Northside, and is the author of Bellingham by the Bay, published by Council Oak Books. Tell him what he should know at bruce@northsidesf.com


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