March 2, 2007
Preparing for the Digital Conversion: Dingell Criticizes Industry and Government Alike

Back in February, I published a six-part series called Access vs. Censorship, looking at two very different types of media policy in the American government and urging our government to prioritize between them.

One of those access issues not mentioned there, in which access is going to butt heads with more efficient technologies, is the switchover from analog to digital television signals.

This issue has become a major discussion point this week, based on comments made by Democratic U.S. Representative John Dingell, who is the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, while speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters at their state leadership conference.

Ira Teinowitz had a good summary, based on the account I read over at TelevisionWeek, where I follow a lot of the daily television news.

According to Ira's piece, Dingell felt the industry and government had done little to create standards for converter boxes, guidelines for allocating coupons for converters, and that little has been done to inform the average viewer. Blame from Dingell was directed throughout government bureaucracy, toward the Bush Administration, and toward the industry, meaning everyone but the viewers themselves were to blame, an account I can hardly disagree with.

He did acknowledge that it is a daunting task to inform viewers but that what had been done so far is "regrettably not sufficient to avoid raising Americans' ire."

His criticism in particular of the way in which the Bush Administration (but I would widen this to government in general and the industry as well) was giving so little time and effort to thinking about the massive implication this switch could have in many Americans' lives was particularly apt.

Teinowitz writes, "Rep. Dingell also questioned in his speech whether the FCC had done enough to outline the public-interest obligations of broadcasters on new multicasting channels" and questions whether a new date needs to be set.

Back in January, I wrote:

However, not nearly as surprising to me is that the survey found that less than 30 percent of Americans are aware of the 2009 deadline for broadcasters to switch to a digital signal, but even half of those people who are unaware have already purchased a digital set, and another 30 percent plan to by 2009. According to the survey, 40 percent of those who were told about the upcoming change said they would upgrade to digital by 2009.

My own anecdotal evidence has found much of the same. Aside from the people I know professionally interested in these issues, friends and family members are completely oblivious to the 2009 digital requirement. I was at home over Christmas and talking to several people about their television purchases or their interest in digital TV sets, and none seemed aware of the primary reason why they might want to buy a digital set by 2009 if they haven't already. One friend, whose family has plenty of capital, have five or six televisions in their house, but none of them prepared for the digital changeover.

I think that there needs to be a massive drive to get the word out throughout the next calendar year, especially since so many people are interested in purchasing flat panel televisions. A primary motivator like this could help drive sales to follow up on the holiday increase in HDTV interest.