Digital Debacle

What you should know, and haven’t heard, about the transition to digital TV


| July-August 2008



Television Static

Even if you only watch TV while you’re visiting friends or when the library is closed, you might want to tune in to the following statistics, which suggest that our broadcast system is about to be tested by an emergency.

Nearly half of U.S. households have no idea when the coming transition from analog to digital television will occur, according to survey results published last winter by the trade group Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. This means that on February 17, 2009, some portion of the 17 percent of U.S. households that use antennae for reception, instead of cable or satellite, may well experience an unexpected TV blackout.

Even among Americans who do claim to know about the transition, an alarming number (some 25 percent) mistakenly believe they need to throw out their analog sets, according to a survey released in January 2008 by the Consumers Union.

Factor in the number of people who are using the signal change as an excuse to buy a newfangled TV, as well as those who don’t know how to dispose of toxic electronic waste properly, and the next installment in the TV age promises to get a low rating from Mother Earth. “That is an alarming picture of a lot of electronic waste going to landfills, which is a huge environmental issue,” says Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with the Consumers Union.

Mass e-waste (and general confusion) could be avoided if the message got out. But the U.S. government, which mandated the switch to digital, is spending a relatively small amount on education: $5 million. Compare that to the $400 million the United Kingdom set aside for education on its transition, which began recently and will continue into early 2009.

What’s worse, the elderly, the poor, and non–English speakers—precisely the sort of people who are most likely to abruptly fall off the digital grid—are also the hardest to reach, reports the Gotham Gazette (Feb. 26, 2008). In part, this is because they often don’t have easy access to the Internet, where so much information about the pending shift is available. These groups don’t just stand to lose entertainment; they also would lose access to news and emergency information.

m. whipple
9/6/2008 9:32:34 AM

It is my understanding, concerning the switch to digital TV, that those of us close to the Canadian border will have to use a splitter if receiving signals through an antenna. The reason for this is that the Canadian government won't switch to digital until the following year. Source for this info was the gov site for digital tv conversion. Also, I hooked up my converter box and if I receive a signal, it breaks up into little squares, because of the poor signal. Almost probable that I'll need an outside antenna. I also have cable, but not on one TV set, I use.