Last week's draft legislative proposal by House staff has generated some optimism regarding movement in the transition to digital TV. In addition to hastening the day when consumers can enjoy higher-quality and potentially more plentiful television programming, the DTV transition promises to jump-start deployment of wireless broadband and other competitive services even after roping off more spectrum for emergency services.
Yet the transition may stall again if Congress continues to miss the forest for the trees on the issue of subsidizing digital-to-analog "converter boxes." This obstacle, which seems small relative to the overall digital transition, suggests we should temper our optimism about recent progress with healthy unease that success still eludes us.
Consumers will need the converter boxes if they want to view over-the-air digital broadcasts using their analog TV sets. As widely reported, however, only a fraction of Americans need the boxes because most subscribe to cable or DBS, which can convert the signal as part of the service. And many of the folks who don't subscribe could afford the box, particularly as an alternative to purchasing a new TV. Then there is the uncomfortable fact that what we are talking about is really just TV. Sure, TV can educate and inform, but its focus on the trivial and titillating more likely accounts for the weight given converter boxes in the political calculus. No Congressman wants to be voted from office for denying a vocal minority their favorite sports, reality or "dramedy" programs.
All that said, one has to wonder whether it will prove any less embarassing -- to Congress, if not the country -- if the digital TV transition is sacrificed because subsidizing converter boxes is deemed to "cost too much." Buying a $50 box for a few million households is arguably pocket change given the tens of billions of dollars that could be obtained by auctioning off part of the spectrum "left over" once broadcasters and public safety advocates are sated. Greater still is the value of new services made possible by the freed spectrum, which could generate additional tens of billions of dollars of consumer benefits each year.
Of course, stepping back to see these forests provides no easy answers regarding how Congress should spur the digital TV transition, particularly given the sacrosanct place the tube retains (temporarily, thank goodness) in American culture and, thus, politics. But taking a good, broad look does underscore -- if we can't secure the obvious benefits of the transition soon -- how great the irony will be, and how very sad.