TV signal scheme is a rip-off of set owners


October 27, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you have a TV set that receives signals over the air, pay attention to Congress. It's about to pick your pocket by turning every one of those sets into a paperweight - unless you pay $50 ransom for each set.

The vehicle for this exercise in highway robbery? Legislation setting a firm date for the switchover from analog to digital TV broadcasting, abandoning the technology broadcasters have used since the dawn of the medium.

Sometime in 2009, you'll need a new digital television to watch your favorite shows over-the-air, or you'll have to buy a converter for your existing set.

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee this week picked midnight on Dec. 31, 2008, for the change. Not surprisingly, the committee disagreed with its Senate counterpart, which chose April 7, 2009, during markup of its switchover bill last week.

The later date would give us a chance to watch postseason bowl games and NCAA basketball finals before our screens go dark and all hell breaks loose.

That's only one difference between the House and Senate bills. The other critical question is how much money Congress will provide to help the poor, elderly and maybe even ordinary citizens who want to know why they suddenly have to pay to continue watching TV over airwaves they already own.

House Republicans had their answer yesterday - $990 million to subsidize consumers who purchase converter boxes. Those boxes are estimated to cost $40 to $60 apiece. Figuring in administrative costs, the money would cover roughly 20 million sets.

Unfortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters estimates that 73 million sets will be affected. So if you own one of the other 53 million, you'll have to buy a new set, pay for a converter, or just chuck that otherwise perfectly good TV into the trash. We won't even talk about the environmental nightmare that presents.

As the markup session wore on, Republicans beat back a Democratic attempt to expand the subsidy to $4 billion, which is about a billion more than the Senate provided in its version.

So Democrats are already lining up to make this a prime Republican- bashing issue.

"This is a government-forced condemnation of private property," Rep. Edward J. Markey declared in the very highest dudgeon.

He's right, of course. But the Massachusetts Democrat didn't mention that this entire misbegotten scheme was hatched during the Clinton administration, with the full participation of his party.

But that's water over the digital dam. You're probably wondering how this will affect you. So here it is in a nutshell:

Any TV hooked up to a cable or satellite feed will be OK after the switchover, because the cable companies will continue providing analog signals to their customers.

You're only out of luck if you're one of the 20 percent of U.S. householders who rely directly on broadcasters - because you don't want cable or can't afford it. You're partially out of luck if you're among 40 percent of cable and satellite customers who still have at least one set that receives over-the-air broadcasts.

You'll only have to replace or buy a converter for the non-cabled sets.

Unfortunately, this blatant rip-off - which critics rightly call the TV Tax - is pretty much a done deal. But it's instructive to understand how and why it happened - maybe we can keep it happening again in some other venue.

It began in the mid-1990s, when an unholy alliance of lawmakers, broadcasters, TV manufacturers and wireless telephone operators got together to figure out a way for everyone to make a pile of money at your expense and mine.

None of this had anything to do with demand from you or me or anyone else in the marketplace.

Here's the scheme they hatched:

Sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, TV broadcasters would give up the analog technology they've been using to send TV signals over the air for more than 60 years. They agreed to switch to a new, digital broadcasting system that sends video and audio as a series of zillions of ones and zeros - which no traditional analog set can decode. The broadcasters would also give up the radio frequencies they were currently using and switch to new frequencies.

The broadcasters had to front a lot of money for new equipment to do this, but they get a choice of goodies in return. The first was technology that can provide a high-definition TV signal - maybe good enough to recapture some of the eyeballs they'd lost to DVDs and computer screens. Those are the HDTVs that home theater buffs are buying today.

But here's the catch: The broadcasters don't have to broadcast in HD all the time. Instead, they can choose to use that same bandwidth to broadcast several digital channels in standard definition. That gives them a chance to reach more audiences and sell three or four times as many commercials - if anybody wants to watch what they're broadcasting.

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