February 15, 2007
Technology waits for no one. In recent years, for example, MP3 files have supplanted the compact disc as the best way to store and listen to music, just as CDs themselves replaced vinyl albums and cassette tapes two decades ago.
Technological advances tend to happen fairly painlessly, and the federal government has never felt compelled to help citizens upgrade their entertainment systems. Until now.
In two years, by statute, broadcast television as we've always known it will go away. On Feb. 18, 2009, all analog broadcast signals will be replaced by digital signals. The picture will be sharper and clearer -- no more of the old-fashioned snow or ghosts on the screen.
Of course, even if the switchover occurred tomorrow, most of us wouldn't notice it. Only about 15 percent of American households still hook up an antenna to watch TV. Everyone else has cable or satellite service, which will still work just fine after the digital switchover.
But anyone who wants to keep watching TV the old-fashioned way will need to buy a new set or plug in a converter box. And here's where Congress comes in. In 2005, lawmakers agreed to pay at least $990 million to subsidize the cost of converter boxes. They were even prepared to spend as much as $1.5 billion. That would be the same as every household kicking in $13 in taxes to help a handful of people buy converter boxes.
This is absurd. Where's the compelling national interest to justify government subsidies for high-tech entertainment equipment? In fact, this is nothing more than a corporate welfare program. The broadcasters and equipment-makers are the ones who'll benefit from the handout.
Still, the Commerce Department has dutifully drafted a plan to help cable-free viewers upgrade. Each eligible household will be able to collect as many as two $40 coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes, which are expected to cost $50 to $75. The converter coupons alone could cost taxpayers as much as $1.36 billion.
But, wait -- there's more!
You see, in some homes, people have TVs that aren't hooked up to their cable. Maybe they keep an extra set in the kitchen to watch the morning news shows or in the bedroom to catch the late-night talkers. Some lawmakers say it's unfair that those sets will soon become useless.
Last fall, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), now the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, sent the Bush administration a letter co-signed by 19 other lawmakers. It complained that the proposed converter-box policy "disadvantages the poor, the elderly, minority groups, and those with multiple television sets in their home." Dingell and the others insist the present plan would "unfairly disenfranchise consumers with perfectly good televisions" who ought to have access to a "government-backed plan to hold them harmless."
That's right. There's a new "victim" group in town: the unfortunates who struggle with the burden of "multiple television sets." Let's get serious. There's no "right" to watch television, and it's not up to the federal government to make sure people can.
Of course, some will argue the government bears some responsibility here, because the TV switchover is only happening because the government is taking back the frequencies that analog signals are broadcast on.
This ignores the fact that, a decade ago, the government also gave broadcasters new frequencies to deliver digital signals. Since then, they've been using both sets of frequencies, free of charge. One reason for the switch is so that Uncle Sam can finally auction off the existing TV frequencies and collect billions of dollars. Doing so will allow companies to use this space to deliver new wireless services, from expanded smart phones to wireless Internet connections.
The bottom line is that it makes no sense to use taxpayer money to help TV viewers upgrade their receivers. There's no reason for the government to be in the business of providing television equipment. It's time to pull the plug on this foolish subsidy.
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times