The future of television is set to arrive on February 17, 2009. On that day the vast majority of television broadcasters will stop sending analog signals, leaving some 20 million Americans who still rely on over-the-air television cut off—unless they purchase either a new TV capable of receiving digital signals or a new converter box.
In December 2005, I examined the debate in Congress over subsidizing this transition to digital television and provided a little of the history behind all this. While there was grumbling at the time from libertarian circles, there was little doubt Congress would step in to assist in the transition just as other countries have done. Earlier this month the fruits of that labor emerged from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which released the rules for its “Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program.”
This program will help television viewers receive free, over-the-air digital television. As Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez said, “The transition from analog to digital television is a historic change and brings with it considerable benefits for the American consumer.” Indeed, digital television is a much improved technology offering sharper pictures and potentially many more benefits to viewers.
Yet the biggest problem with the transition to digital television in the United States (as I have argued before) is that the Federal Communications Commission under the Bush administration has locked the public out of the process of determining what those benefits might be. What’s more, yesteryear’s Republican-controlled Congress set the rules regarding this transition. Thus the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters remain undefined and insufficient money has been set aside for the digital conversion. Both problems need to be addressed by Congress this year.
DTV and the Public Interest
Over 1,600 broadcasters are now providing digital television signals, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Some are providing High Definition TV, others are providing multiple channels with different programming choices. These digital broadcasters are demanding that cable carry all the channels they offer, because after all broadcasters operate in the public interest. Yet the FCC has yet to reopen the proceeding begun in 1999 to define the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters.
When Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, recently grilled FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on DTV and the public interest, Martin told Markey that the FCC had already addressed this issue. That’s true, but only as the law relates to the public interest and our children. The FCC did approve an agreement between advocates for children and digital broadcasting that put in place restrictions on advertising and required three hours per week of educational/informational shows for children per channel.
The Martin-led FCC should be applauded for displaying this concern for our children, yet the public interest obligation of broadcasters should not stop there. The Benton Foundation is leading the charge to revisit the proceeding on public interest obligations for digital broadcasters noting 4,250 days of inaction on the public interest obligations and counting. As the Citizen’s Guide to the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television makes clear, our democracy is at stake:
“Digital television, with its capacity for multicasting, provides an opportunity for broadcasters to better meet citizen needs for public information because it can provide more information on more simultaneous channels. As we transition to digital, policymakers have an opportunity to reinforce our democracy by establishing meaningful public interest obligations for digital broadcasters that can keep the public informed, the electorate engaged, and our democracy intact.”
Other public interest issues are also left unaddressed by the FCC. As the American Association of People with Disabilities notes, while some closed-captioning will be required through the converter box subsidized by NTIA, video description services making television available to visually impaired users will not be required. The rationale for this oversight is that in the absence of FCC rules NTIA does not have the authority to require video description.
Despite Martin’s assertions to Markey, the FCC chairman has demonstrated no more interest in clarifying the public interest obligations of digital television broadcasters than his predecessor Michael Powell. But now, under pressure about the much-delayed media ownership rules, Martin has floated a trial balloon linking consolidation to a suggestion that digital broadcasters might lease their excess capacity to women and minorities who have largely been locked out of broadcast licensing opportunities. Supporting Martin in this quest are Gannett Company Inc. and Media General Inc., both of which own newspapers and TV stations. The two companies suggest they would accept increased (but unspecified) public interest obligations if the FCC waives the prohibition on owning a newspaper and broadcast operation in the same market.
Markey has asked Martin to conclude the 1999 proceeding on the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters by the end of this year. The new leadership in Congress should press the FCC to do just this, but in tandem legislators should also examine public funding of this critical technology transition.
Funding the Transition to Digital
If the public cannot count on a clear set of public interest obligations, they can at least count on clearer pictures. The big hurdle now is to ensure that some 20 million households in the United States that rely exclusively on over-the-air television can make the transition to digital by mid-February 2009.
And who are these Americans who do not get cable or satellite TV? They are a very mixed group, cutting across all segments of society. For this reason, NTIA has created a program setting aside $990 million for all Americans to receive up to two $40 coupons to purchase equipment to convert an over-the-air digital signal so that it can be seen on an old (analog) TV. Once that money runs out, NTIA expects to have about $510 million in coupons to distribute that will be reserved for those most in need, such as rural Americans, minorities, older Americans, lower-income families, and persons with disabilities.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and a broad coalition led by the Association of Public Television Stations will engage in a comprehensive educational campaign to inform those Americans most at risk of losing basic news and emergency information provided by broadcast television. But funding for this educational effort is uncertain.
“The funding now available is inadequate to accomplish” the educational effort, says John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations. And in a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters this past February, Representative John D. Dingell (D-MI), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, argued that the $5 million the prior Congress set aside was inadequate. “This effort will require much more than that,” he said. “Five million [dollars] won’t even buy two thirty-second Super Bowl spots.”
Let’s get the transition to digital underway and spend the money allocated by the 109th Congress. The 110th Congress must devote the resources to determine whether there remain unmet needs. And if poor Americans are cut off because funds run out, Congress must then allocate additional funds to ensure that all Americans can make the transition to digital TV.
Mark Lloyd is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His columns and research papers can be found on the Media and Culture pages of our website or under his biography.
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