Couch potato famine 

In less than nine months, 30 million Americans could find themselves staring at a blank television screen.

On February 17, 2009, the United States launches an ambitious digital-TV transition, requiring all full-power broadcast stations to scrap their analog transmissions in favor of digital-only signals. The move is designed to free up the airwaves for emergency services, wireless broadband, and cell-phone TV, but for analog-only TV viewers who fail to prepare for the conversion, February 17 might feel like a real-life, couch-potato Y2K: the day Grey’s Anatomy and Dancing With the Stars disappear from our prime-time schedules. But the implications of the digital transition extend far beyond consumer viewing patterns, into a shakeup of the retail-electronics industry, a new era for cable companies, and the threat of an environmental nightmare caused by millions of Americans discarding their old sets at the same time.

While information about the upcoming shift continually pops up in PSAs, television-station scrolls, and a host of websites, surveys indicate that the American populace is thoroughly confused about the change. It’s symptomatic of how ineffective the government’s educational effort has been that research shows polar extremes of misinformation. On the one hand, 61 percent of those who’ll have at least one TV affected by the transition wrongly believe they won’t be affected, according to a January survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. The same survey also shows that 24 percent of respondents wrongly believe they will need to throw away all their analog sets to adapt. As a result, it’s fair to say that television viewers in the United States are both overly concerned and not concerned enough about the digital-TV transition.

Here are the facts: The transition will not affect TVs with digital tuners or high-definition sets; it will not affect TVs with cable service or satellite transmission; it will not affect TVs connected to digital-to-analog converter boxes. The only TVs affected by the move will be analog-only sets that pick up free broadcast stations with antennas or rabbit ears.

Even if you own one of those sets, you have plenty of options between now and February 17. The thriftiest course is to take advantage of a government-sponsored coupon program to buy a converter box for your set. A more expensive option would be to subscribe to cable (while cable companies don’t suggest that this is the only recourse for analog-only viewers, they predictably recommend it). The final, shoot-the-moon option would be to see the upcoming conversion as a good excuse to plunk down four figures for a new set, preferably one of those high-definition, flat-screen, plasma monstrosities.

Among media observers, there’s an unsettling sense that the information is not reaching its intended targets.

“As a San Antonian, I’m a little nervous, just because the data that people researching this have been putting out says that Texas — and San Antonio specifically — is going to feel disconnected from receiving a transmission,” says DeAnne Cuellar of the Texas Media Empowerment Project, a media-justice advocacy group based in San Antonio. “When I just ask people randomly if they know the DTV transition happens in a few months, I hardly ever run into anybody that knows that it’s happening, or they’re not even sure about the box and they don’t know about the coupon.”

In February, the Nielsen Co. released a survey that lends credence to Cuellar’s concerns. Nielsen found that more than 10 percent of American households would have no access to television signals if the conversion happened immediately. The most striking data from the survey concerned the transition’s impact on various ethnic and racial groups. While 8.8. percent of whites will be affected by the conversion, nearly twice as many Latinos — a whopping 17.3 percent — will be affected. Nielsen found that Latinos would be the ethnic group most affected by the switch by a large margin.

Aware that many lower-income San Antonians do no have internet access and may have a hard time locating accurate information on the digital-TV conversion, Cuellar says she and fellow Texas MEP members hope to block-walk in local neighborhoods this fall.

“I think people are just confused,“ she says. “Some people have an idea that something like that is going to happen, but they’re not sure what to do. They’re not sure if they should buy the little box, if the box is going to work. Some people have been told they need to buy a new TV, but they know they can’t afford the new TVs, and some people have been told that they should get cable. What we’re going to do is to focus on making sure they know the difference between all three of those things and then let them choose what fits their needs.”

If Congress and the FCC had their way, we’d already be in the post-analog age. Aware that digital technology was taking over, in 1996 they set a target date of December 31, 2006, for broadcasters to abandon their analog signals and convert to digital. The market responded to the digital revolution more slowly than expected, however, and Congress adjusted with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which established a firm deadline of February 17, 2009.

Even though this plan has been in the offing for more than a decade, for many armchair quarterbacks the move feels sudden and unnecessary. An April 2005 MSNBC piece on the digital transition (“The End of Analog TV”) drew several angry responses, with respondents blaming electronics companies for not moving quickly enough to phase out analog sets and make digital TVs affordable, and the government for pushing people to buy converters and wasting money on converter-coupon subsidies that could be better used to address issues of hunger and inadequate health care. Some readers fretted about the prospect of an environmental mess, with millions of old TVs probably headed for dump sites.

So why is this problematic transition essential?

“The digital spectrum is a much more efficient use of the spectrum,” says Rosemary Kimball, director of media relations for the Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau of the FCC. “It’s sort of like the march of technology. The analog spectrum is what television broadcasters have used since television started, and that spectrum that’s being reclaimed from them is particularly good for fire, police, first responders, that type of thing. So a lot of that spectrum is going to be given to them. And the digital spectrum that the broadcasters will be operating on is much better for television — much better sound and picture quality.”

While Kimball notes that FCC reps are “trying to do what we can and traveling all over the country to talk to people,” Congress allocated a paltry $5 million in public funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Association for public education on the digital transfer, with the FCC requesting an additional $1.5 million, meaning that the government has depended largely on broadcasters and retailers to get the word out. Consumers Union, in its report on the DTV conversion, noted that the United Kingdom plans to spend $400 million on its public-education campaign, more than 60 times what the U.S. government is committing.

Congress put the NTIA in charge of the government’s coupon program, which provides up to two $40 coupons per household for the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter box. The boxes generally range in price from $50 to $70. The coupons expire 90 days after issuance and can be obtained by calling 1-(888)-DTV-2009.

If the FCC’s public-education role has been minimal on the DTV transition, the Commission has taken an aggressive stance with regard to the sale of analog-only TVs. Beginning on March 1, 2007, all TVs imported into the United States or shipped between states are required to have digital tuners, and any analog-only sets sold by retailers have to contain labels informing the consumer that the set would soon be obsolete. In April, the FCC handed down 11 fines against companies who violated these rules. They targeted Circuit City, Wal-Mart, Fry’s Electronics, Target, Best Buy, and CompUSA for failing to place labels on analog-only products, with Sears/Roebuck/K-Mart receiving a particularly hefty fine of $1,096,000. The obvious message to retailers is that while they can sell their remaining analog-only inventory, they must do so only after warning consumers away from them.

With an estimated 19-million households owning at least one analog-only television, it’s reasonable to assume that the looming conversion deadline will spur many consumers to purchase new TVs. That will also result in a glut of old sets ready to be discarded, and the danger that tons of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other toxins could be headed to a landfill near you.

“We think that millions of people all across the country will be tossing their old analog televisions out on February 17, or somewhere close to it. Without any comprehensive, nationwide, free, convenient, and responsible recycling programs in place for those TVs, we think that many of them will end up in landfills in Texas, illegal dumps across the country, and across the world,” says Zac Trahan, program assistant at Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“Sony has been the only `company` to offer free recycling for their products nationwide,” he adds. “Some other companies are following state laws that require them to recycle in various states. Texas has a law requiring computer companies to recycle that goes into effect on September 1 this year. It’s called Producer Take-Back Recycling, where the companies that make and sell computers are the ones responsible for taking them back and recycling them. And that’s a great step for Texas, but it doesn’t cover televisions.”

Trahan argues that if producers and manufacturers are responsible for recycling their own products, they’ll have a “bottom-line profit incentive” to design products with recycling in mind. “It saves tax dollars, too,” Trahan says. “If the cities like San Antonio have collection programs that they launch for their residents to take those TVs, then the local taxpayers are stuck with the bill for handling those TVs responsibly. So we are putting consumer pressure, stakeholder pressure, and public pressure on the TV companies directly.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment plans to lobby in Austin at the beginning of next year’s legislative session, but Trahan recognizes that any resulting legislation will be too late for the upcoming digital-TV transfer. He encourages consumers planning to discard non-Sony sets to hang onto them, at least temporarily. But for San Antonians, there may be a better option.

For the last 11 years, Corona Visions has worked with local retailers to safely recycle electronics products by breaking them into their component parts. They’re currently working with local Sony outlets and Bjorn’s Audio Video Systems to recycle analog-only TVs brought into their stores. The company’s owner, Vandell Norwood, says Corona Visions is also in the process of working out a plan with the City of San Antonio to assist with the TV-recycling effort.

“One of our things is to work with the city to make them aware that there is a place here in town, because anybody that sells a TV set needs to know that there’s a place to get your TV recycled. Six months before that time, we’re going to contact all the retailers to let them know that we have a system set up to handle television sets. There is going to be a charge for it, except for the Sonys. Sony pays for that,” Norwood says.

Based on her conversations with locals, DeAnne Cuellar envisions the need for a local environmental plan. “Maybe it’s just me being weird,” she says, “but I imagine TVs lined up at the end of people’s driveways.” •


Five creative uses for your old TV

1. City street planters.
Every revitalized urban core needs these, and lots of them. Key: They must be big. A perfect use for old sets. They’d look especially good with agave, prickly pear, and Texas pomegranates growing out of them.

2. Three words: Sock.
Puppet. Theater. Yeah, apparently puppet theater is like, huge in Europe (and my spies tell me twice as innovative as live-human theater is in the States), so now’s your chance to entertain your children and friends with original works by you. It’s 3-D entertainment without the silly glasses.

3. Lift and place in car.
Drive to an open field (TBA) and add to the tiered seating, aka bleachers, being assembled. There I would suggest you go at least once a week to watch the Really Big TV (RBTV) that is, like, life.

4. Turn your TV into a well-lit aquarium, sure to be a living room conversation piece.
After you’ve gutted your old set and removed the CRT, all you’ll need to do is rebuild the cabinet to include a flip lid and add an aquarium about the size of your screen, complete with the normal accessories. Your toddler will think you’ve put Finding Nemo on an endless loop.

5. Transform it into a dinner tray, with plates and silverware inside and beverages on top. That way, you can rest your dinner in your old TV, while you’re sitting and watching the new, vastly superior model.



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