Sunday, June 7, 2009

DTV is coming: this time we mean it!

On the 2nd day of this year, I wrote:

One prediction I will stand by: digital TV is coming, and analog TV will be gone by mid-February.
As it turns out, I was wrong because I underestimated the spinelessness of our political “leaders.” In January, Congress made a big show of postponing the DTV transition by 4 months so the poor and oppressed masses would not be deprived of their over the air TV.

Well, guess what? Next Friday is the last day for NTSC broadcasts anywhere, and some people aren’t ready. As a car-carrying ally of the scaremongers, the NYT tried Saturday to sound the alarm:
Millions of households will lose television reception next week when about 1,000 broadcasters around the nation shut off their analog signals and complete their conversion to digital programming, federal officials say.

The government has spent more than $2 billion to ease the transition to digital television, and in the last few months has cut in half the number of households that are unprepared for the final conversion on June 12. But the latest survey by the Nielsen Company indicates that as of the end of May, more than 10 percent of the 114 million households that have television sets are either completely or partly unprepared.

Michael J. Copps, the acting head of the Federal Communications Commission, said that the people most likely to lose reception are society’s most vulnerable — lower-income families, the elderly, the handicapped and homes where little or no English is spoken. The transition will also hit inner-city and rural areas hardest, he said.
Horsepucky. It turns out there is really no story here:
More than three million homes that do not subscribe to cable or satellite services are totally unprepared for the transition and will lose their reception, according to Nielsen. Another nine million homes that subscribe to cable or satellite services but that have spare television sets — typically in bedrooms and kitchens — that are not connected to any service are also expected to lose reception. The conversion does not affect cable or satellite distribution.
So some people have old TVs that aren’t worth upgrading and they won’t be using them come Saturday morning. (I have two). So what? A converter box cost $40 and a new TV (better than the 15 year old junker) costs $150 from Costco, Wal-Mart or Amazon. And most people (particularly the less technically savvy) are better off getting a new TV rather than try to figure out how to get mediocre results with a complex converter box setup. (If Congress were serious about conversion, they would have means-tested the coupons and used the savings to allow the disadvantaged folks to use their coupon towards a new TV.)

The real number — the one used to justify the delay and extra spending and press releases and squatting on other people’s (expensive) spectrum — is 2.6%. That’s a tiny number. Economists figure 5% unemployment is as close as the economy can get to zero unemployment, and the fraction of people temporarily without TV is half that.

The FCC knows better. Every few years it splits area codes, and people ignore the split until the recording comes up “this number is no longer in service.” Then they go find the new area code.

The idea that the number could be pushed closed to 0% is a typical delusion of statists who believe in the (illusory) magic of a centrally planned economy. It’s not possible to plan this number down to zero. A transition involving 114 million households has to be done by decentralized actors working in their own self-interest, not in response to some centralized mandate. And some of these people aren’t going to deal with it until they have no choice. It is (or at least was) a free country.

So despite the delay, some homes will have dark screens Saturday — because there were always going to be some homes with dark screens. These same people will solve the problem within a few weeks of when they are forced to, just as they would have solved them if the transition occurred 4 months ago. So by the time NFL and the fall network shows start, this transitory inconvenience will just be a bad memory.

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