Years ago in an early DTV (digital television transition) hearing in the U.S. House, a senior lawmaker told his colleagues, "Gentlemen, mess with the voters' television and you won't be coming back after the next election."
It's a warning elected officials took to heart, allocating approximately $1.5 billion for digital converter box subsidies. Additionally, Congress leaned on the private sector -- broadcasters, cable and satellite companies, and consumer electronics retailers -- to commit to a multimillion-dollar public education campaign about the DTV.
"While there are claims that hundreds of millions of private-sector dollars have been spent making Americans aware of the DTV transition, it seems that most Americans have no idea what it really is even if they have heard of it," Sen. Jay Rockefeller said on the floor of the Senate Nov. 20. "New surveys suggest more consumers are growing aware of the transition, but consumers overall remain confused about what steps they need to take to prepare. Consumer Reports magazine has found that 63 percent of Americans have major misconceptions about what steps they need to take to prepare."
Although all Americans are eligible for the subsidies, more than 80 percent of households don't need converter boxes, since they receive their television signals via cable or satellite. That fact brings little comfort to Rockefeller, the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce and Science Committee.
"There have been serious concerns about our readiness to make the shift to digital TV, and several of my colleagues and I have been raising red flags about this for many years now," Rockefeller said. "Not because we believe the change is a mistake, but because we believe that not enough has been done to prepare, to educate and to help American consumers so that the screens on their television sets do not go black [on Feb. 17, 2009]."
Rockefeller then drafted a bill that President Bush signed on Dec. 29 granting a 30-day continuation of analog signals to help educate consumers to understand what steps they need to take to restore their television signals. For those who somehow missed all the advertising about the DTV, their screens won't turn to snow. Instead, the analog signal will be a continuous loop of how to get a converter box interspersed with any necessary public announcements about weather and other emergencies.
"At present, most experts agree that the transition will unleash a massive amount of consumer confusion. And when people are cut off from their televisions, it is not just a matter of convenience; it is a matter of public safety," Rockefeller said. "We simply cannot stand by and let people lose access to emergency alerts and public safety communications."
In addition, with less than two months to go to the analog cutoff, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports subsidy funding is running low. "It is becoming increasingly clear that at minimum Congress may need to quickly pass additional funding for the converter box program in early January," Rep. Ed Markey said Dec. 29.
So, almost four years after enacting the DTV Act, Congress appears to be engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy about the federal government's ability to successfully pull off the DTV trick.