Spoutin' Off: Digital conversion deadline looming

By Michael Rau

February 3, 2008

It's hard to predict what the status of the digital television conversion is as you read this.

It looked like a slam dunk as the Senate passed a bill, with the support of the new president, that would push the deadline back from Feb. 17 until the end of June. Then the House killed the bill, leaving the February date intact. Then House supporters vowed to bring the bill back up this week.

But even if they do vote to pass the bill, as written it won't prevent affiliates from throwing the switch whenever they choose, thus failing to solve the underlying problem.

Truthfully, I was surprised it was even proposed.

I first wrote in this column about the DTV conversion in 2005, and have touched on the subject several times since.

Additionally, the topic's been covered scores of times in this paper and other print media. And stop and think for a minute about how many times you've seen ads on every single TV and cable station, not to mention news stories and specials.

On top of all that, there's more information available online than you could absorb in a day.

So after all this effort, how could anyone possibly have not known this date was coming, and what else could have been done?

Ostensibly, the reason for proposing to push the deadline back is that there are still lots of people who need to get a converter box, but can't get a coupon because the government funds have run out.

Apparently, of the 46 million coupons the Government issued, most went to households that don't even need them. Additionally, only 18 million of those coupons have even been redeemed.

So that means that around half of the coupons — around a billion dollars worth — went unused. As a result, the funds ran out and now there are around 1.7 million households nationwide that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts that can't get coupons.

But is this really a good reason to ask for such a delay? I feel bad for those folks, even though they should have been the first to apply for the coupons. But that doesn't mean they can't get a converter box. It just means they'll have to pay $40 more for it.

The companies involved in broadcasting television programming have been compelled to invest billions of dollars to implement the conversion. Running concurrent analog and digital signals past the February conversion date will be extremely costly for them (one account I read quoted a station general manager as saying their costs just for the electricity to run their transmitters was $20,000 per month).

These companies are under enough financial pressure without imposing such an unfair additional burden on them. They did their part.

So what about those 1.7 million households who, as of right now, won't be able to get any TV broadcasts after Feb. 17?

Well, I know times are tight, but they may just have to bite the bullet and cough up the extra 40 bucks. Or they can wait until some coupons expire, thus making more funds available through the existing program.

But I'm not completely heartless. So with apologies to Jonathan Swift, I'd like to make a modest proposal.

It's obvious there are millions of coupons floating around out here that were acquired by people who subsequently figured out that they didn't really need them after all.

So why don't we all think in terms of trying to connect the people who have coupons with the people who need coupons?

I can think of two scenarios where this kind of effort could come together very quickly.

First, spearheading such a project would be a great way for a local TV affiliate to make friends. They could set up some kind of an exchange board on their Web site ("need coupons" and "have coupons" lists), as well as the usual types of promotional efforts such as news features, hot lines, etc.

But that's a lot of effort and all local affiliates are strained. So acknowledging that such an idea might not come together in time, here's an even easier way in a word: Craigslist.

If everyone who has extra coupons or needs coupons would post a notice on Craigslist, perhaps in the "Free" category under the "For Sale" listings, we could get those coupons into the hands of people who actually need them. Such an effort could spread nationally very quickly.

My biggest concern under such a plan would be that those who probably need the coupons the most, namely the elderly and underprivileged, might fall through the cracks. But Craigslist is free and perhaps there are community agencies or volunteers that could assist by poking around on Craigslist on behalf of those who need some help.

Whether or not you agree with the decision to convert to digital TV broadcasts, it's a done deal. The government, as well as the broadcast and cable industries did their parts. Now it's time for citizens, particularly those who got converter coupons without really needing them, to step up and do theirs.

C'mon people! Let's cough up those extra coupons and just go ahead and get this whole DTV conversion thing out of the way.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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