By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008
We are at T minus six months.
This is it, folks. The nation has done what it can do to prepare for The Transition. The government has allocated approximately $1.5 billion in coupons to ease America's fear and suffering. Sen. Hillary Clinton sent a letter to President Bush imploring him to see the severity of the situation. On the radio, guest experts try to remain calm and reassuring while simultaneously conveying what a very deep pile of shtuff we're in.
On Feb. 17, you will not be able to watch television.
In case you have been, for the past three years, trapped under a large object:
Due to the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 (cue thunder!), six months from today all broadcast stations will switch from analog to digital transmission (cue lightning!), and if you currently rely on bunny ears (cue the mordant laughter of a vengeful God!), you're out of luck.
Naturally, officials have been preparing.
The Federal Communications Commission "periodically evaluates the progress of the nation's transition to DTV," reads the text of one memo, which goes on for 200 pages. "The Commission initiated this -- "
Wait, are we talking about television?
The brain-rotting device that we've all been vowing to toss, or at least cut back on, for the past 40 years? Just to be clear, this is what we're talking about? Not, like, Ebola?
Yes. We are talking about television.
Not everybody's television. You got cable? You're fine. You got a dish? You're fine. You purchase your set after March 2007? You're fine, too. Even after 2000, you're probably okay.
(A refresher: Analog comes through the air, on big, messy waves, as radio does; digital comes through the air in tight, neat packets of bits using a technology similar to a computer.)
The people we are talking about are the 14 million households, according to Nielsen Co., whose sole access to television comes from an analog, antenna'd TV. Market research firm Centris says 17 million. That's 15 percent of television viewers nationwide, tops.
The demographics of analog viewers might surprise you. They do tend to have less income and education than households with paid TV subscriptions. But they also tend to be younger-- 21.4 percent of people age 18 to 25 -- than paid subscribers, according to Centris.
We envision those bright-eyed nonprofit interns, with laptops and Netflix subscriptions. The people who, as a matter of pride, don't even want to watch TV.
But if they did, the government would be right on top of it.
The FCC's Web site provides a by-the-second countdown clock to The Transition, and a 29-page list of FAQs ("What are my options for watching over-the-air analog TV broadcasts from LPTV or translator stations after the digital transition?").
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has partnered with 17 federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as 280 other partners (AARP, NAACP) to get the word out about the coupons.
Didn't we mention them? So intent on preserving your continued ability to watch television is the government that they have implemented the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. It provides funds for 33.5 million coupons, worth $40 each, to be applied toward digital-to-analog converter boxes, which run $50 to $80 at retailers nationwide.
The government can afford to be generous. It made $19 billion earlier this year, after all, when it auctioned off the soon-to-be-unused analog airwaves to various telecommunications companies.
Corporations like AT&T and Verizon dug deep for the rights to mess around with airspace on the 700 megahertz wireless spectrum.
Translation: Uncle Sam took your perfectly good analog so mega-corps could get more mega, but in exchange you will get more television channels and, eventually, really cool stuff on your cellphone.
About 23.5 million coupons have been requested, says NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak, including 294,000 in this metropolitan viewing area (the number is closer to 40,000 for the District alone). "But," he warns, "5 percent of D.C. households are totally unready." This number comes from Nielsen, and includes people who have requested or redeemed coupons but haven't physically hooked up their boxes.
On the day of doom, those households will "just pick up the low-power TV stations in the area," Sedmak says. Think public access (PTA meetings in Vietnamese) -- no NBC, ABC, CBS.
So, a recap: On Feb. 17, 12 to 15 percent of Americans who may or may not want to watch television will find themselves briefly able to receive only cruddy stations, until or unless they go to Best Buy and purchase a converter box, which the government will subsidize.
You will have to plug it in yourself, though there are videos online helping you do that, too.
We are in for some hard times.
This is why RadioShack.com announces ominously, in block letters, "A change in TV broadcasting is coming. Will you be ready?"
Why videos on YouTube, posted by DTVanswers (an initiative by the National Association of Broadcasters), warn that consumers who don't step up "will risk losing TV altogether." A confused woman in the ad sits in a dimly lit room, her television having simply . . . stopped.
We expect Sam Waterston to appear at any moment, hawking DTV robot insurance in an alarmist infomercial.
FYI: The United States is not alone in this endeavor. We have been preceded in the digital transition by eight European countries, including Estonia, Andorra and Luxembourg, none of which imploded upon completion of the switch. Thirty-one other countries are currently mid-transition, including the United Kingdom, which also has an informational site with FAQs. The United Kingdom's FAQs total just 3 1/2 pages.
But Americans really love TV.
God, but we love it. Even our broadcast channels, vintage and Podunk as they seem next to Showtime and CNN.
Those who can't watch "Mad Men" on AMC can take solace in "Lost," or "Ellen," or a new "Law & Order" every single week (after 18 years!) -- free.
The family bonding and social lubricant benefits of television are hard to overstate, though many TV proponents have tried. The public safety aspect, too, which is what the FCC stresses: How else will people be informed?
(By fantastic new cellphone applications, we expect.)
"In some ways, this is a lot more devastating to people" than the lead-up to Y2K, says Barry Goodstadt, a psychologist and senior vice president of Centris. "TV is more important to people than most consumers will admit," he says. "[They'll] say, 'Oh, I don't watch TV.' But they do." They do.
That's why the franticness surrounding the DTV transition is so unnerving. Not because people love television, but because that private, embarrassing love is being acknowledged in a very public way. America is saying, You know how I said I turn on my set just once every four years for the presidential debates? I lied. I love "Poker After Dark." I live for "The Price Is Right." If you take that away from me, I will be lost, so give me my coupon and no one gets hurt.
Our truest, most disappointing priorities, laid out for all to witness. See, for example, the Web site of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has placed DTV on his issues tab, right between "education" and "budget and taxes."
The placement is disturbing and, sadly, comforting.
But surely there are some people who live outside of this obsession, who can reassure us that humanity will withstand the calamity in the DTV transition?
A call to Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters magazine, which sponsors the yearly "Mental Detox Week." (Used to be "TV Turnoff Week" until Adbusters realized people were turning off their TVs only to log onto their PCs.)
So, Kalle, it's not like people are going to break out in hives from this, right? Heh heh heh.
"Actually, we do get calls," Lasn says. "[People] are only four hours in and already they're sweating and getting all the symptoms of withdrawal."
No, but really.
"It's very much like smoking. All kinds of delusions, and sweating, and physical discomfort -- "
You're not really helping here. . .
"People intuitively know it will be bad -- they've had all those little experiences of when the TV goes down."
Having cable himself, however, Lasn should be okay.