D-day — June 12, 2009. Last Friday was the day when the remainder of the nation’s 1,700 analog television stations shut down in the long-promised changeover to digital broadcasting.
Cable and satellite viewers — or those whose TV has a digital tuner — were still able to watch “American Idol,” “CSI” and “Heroes,” unaware that anything has changed. But when the 21 million households using a conventional set with rabbit ears or an old rooftop antenna turned on their TVs, they saw … nothing.
The reaction from many tends to be, “So what? Its just television.” Ironically, this reaction usually comes from people already subscribing to cable/satellite and wired with broadband. They’re not the ones affected by the changeover.
Instead, it’s the poor and rural populations of our country that must find a new way to get their television needs met. Although some have fallen in love with video over the Internet, television still has the communications importance most media dream of. Aside from serving as an affordable form of entertainment, it disseminates important information concerning current affairs, public safety and security.
For the poor, elderly or people living in rural America, television is an important part of life and the change could be traumatic. We’d like to think that all Americans take part in the Tivo-Broadband-YouTube world we know now. Unfortunately, the digital conversion threatens to turn a good portion of the population into Tom Joads, no longer participating in modern cultural life.
It’s hard to watch Hulu or YouTube if you’re not wired up in Western Kansas. Many poor urban neighborhoods might be wired, but the price of digital cable ($80/month) and/or broadband ($30/month) can be cost prohibitive for a family on the south side of Chicago. These consumers will have to rethink how they receive entertainment.
For argument’s sake, lets say everyone in America had a digital television set. Although that would solve one problem, it reveals another. Most analog stations switching to a digital signal are affiliates of the Big Four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) or local public television stations.
Thirty years ago content provided from these networks was the gold standard of programming. Today, they represent a small sliver of what’s available. If you want sports, you better have ESPN. If you want the latest news you’ll need to tune into CNN. As networks scale back their news operations and provide cheaper reality programming instead of scripted series, higher quality shows and diverse programming has moved to smaller networks available only on satellite or cable.
The value of the Big Four isn’t what it once was.
Given the importance that television as a whole plays in the day-to-day life of most people, the government must take responsibility to ensure there’s equal digital access to all Americans. Over the years, they’ve done just that.
In 1935, Congress signed the Rural Electrification Act, which first brought electricity and then phone service to farms. When TV systems moved from black-and-white to color, the government made sure the new technology was compatible with the old system. And in February, Congress approved $7.2 billion to bring high-speed Internet to underserved areas of the U.S. That’s a good start.
It’s unlikely everyone is going to start watching “American Idol” on their computer anytime soon. Until that time, a larger spectrum of channels needs to be available for free or subsidized by the government. Cable and satellite prices need to be regulated so that all can afford a basic tier of channels.
I’m sure a little brainstorming by the powers that be would reveal other possibilities as well. But a shortsighted policy of providing full digital content only to urban and a smattering of rural areas would create two Americas of information haves and have-nots.
We cannot make this mistake today.