Fuzzy Pictures


House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says the DTV transition picture is still fuzzy. I agree.

A Hill hearing was held Wednesday with the goal of clearing up that picture. Hmmmm. Not sure it did much to "sharpen it to crystal clarity," to borrow from the Outer Limits intro about control of the TV picture.

I agree with broadcaster/Congressman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) that a lot of people are going to ask why they can't use the $40 coupon the government is using to subsidize digital-to-analog converters toward any kind of box they want.

As currently configured, the government will only subsidize low-cost boxes without any fancy features like built-in DVR's or extra outputs. But why? This is effectively a government-mandated taking of analog set. Why shouldn't anyone with an analog-only set be made whole buy getting a coupon to which they could apply to whatever box they want? It's not covering the cost of the whole box anyway.

It's not like this is only a "lifeline" initiative because the boxes are going to be available to second or third boxes with houses already hooked up to a cable or satellite lifeline.

There is no means test, so the boxes aren't being confined to poor people or ones who can't afford to buy them.

Also unclear is just how many sets will need the boxes after the transition. The figure seems to be somewhere  between 8 million and 130 million, depending on what the definition of "need" is. That's quite a range.

Also unclear is how much money is needed for consumer education. Equipment manufacturers suggest some of the Chicken Little predictions of train wrecks and panic are fear mongeringfearmongering," and don't plan to ask for a dime. Others warn that the political futures could hang in the balance if the project is underfunded.

Also unclear is whether retailers will have to start putting little stickers on analog sets that say they are headed for potted-plantdom in February 2009 without a converter. Republicans and Democrats seem in agreement the labels are necessary, while the industry seems in agreement that it isn't.

Also unclear is just how many converters will be on store shelves in January 2008, at which time the govenment government be ready to process coupons and start subsidizing the converters.

A Best buy representative said it wasn't putting labels on its TV's which led at least one legislator to the suggestion that retailers might not want to push the boxes but rather upsell (I like that word) customers to DTVs instead.

Also unclear is just when the massive consumer education campaign will or should get in gear, May, November, or January 2008, depending on whom you ask. Congressman Joe Barton says May, but he is willing to bend. One top broadcaster suggested November, while others say not until the boxes are on the shelves and the government in gear to issue the coupons, wishing to avoid panic in the streets when Seinfeld re-runs are inaccessible.

Also unclear is…Well, you get the fuzzy picture.

By John Eggerton