A long way back I read a book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death in which the brilliant social critic noted in detail how we were doing exactly that. Postman’s writings came to mind as I read about a new plan running around Congress that would pay all of us to dump our old analog television sets and switch to digital TV. As always there is more to this bill than government generosity.
In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring all broadcasters to begin distributing their signals in digital form by sometime in 2005 and give up the analog spectrum they had been using by 2007. Which means the current TV sets most of us have would be useless for broadcast (not cable or satellite) signals. The loophole for media companies (they always get one) is that they can hold on to the analog channels until at least 85 percent of us have the equipment to receive over-the-air digital signals. According to the sponsors of this legislation, we just haven’t been moving fast enough in that direction.
It’s not that our representatives are concerned that we can’t view a nice, crisp, high definition version of According to Jim. The government wants the analog TV spectrum back so they can auction off those channels to wireless companies for between $30 and $70 billion – making the $1 billion in this bill seem like a good investment. The television industry, on the other hand, would like to keep the old channels so they can provide additional "content" – like more pay per view and home shopping.
There are other issues involved with the proposal, of course, but the bottom line question is, why should this issue involve a government subsidy? One reason many of us are slow to adopt digital television is that there’s no compelling reason to do it. Most television programming isn’t that good and wouldn’t be improved with a clearer picture. Besides, with the huge profits raked in by the media conglomerates, they should easily be able to cover the cost of any forced conversion. In fact, several of the networks would have to pay me to watch their crap.