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Ensuring the Idiot Box


The postponement of the digital television conversion last month revealed the truth about the way Americans view their television: as an inalienable right.

The concept certainly gained traction when the FCC foisted a mandatory change in the delivery technology of broadcast television. They eased the pain on consumers by earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in coupons for Joe Rabbit Ears to be able to continue watching Gossip Girl on his Radio Shack black-and-white jobbie.

The transition started back in 1996 when Congress allotted each existing broadcast station an additional digital channel to allow them to begin broadcasting in digital simultaneously with their current analog signals. (The difference? Analog spectrum is limited and shared among emergency service providers and other government agencies. Getting the private sector weaned off of the analog bottle will free up much-needed spectrum for these uses.) About 10 years later, propelled by fears that lack of spectrum contributed to issues with emergency response during 9/11, the feds mandated that all broadcast analog transmissions cease as of Dec. 31, 2008 (later amended to Feb., 2009, and then again to June, 2009).

As with most federal deadlines, it was determined earlier this year that they were going to need to push the deadline back again, this time to June, because not enough people were going to have the necessary converter boxes on hand to watch TV after the switch. If you have satellite or cable TV, you won’t need an additional converter box. You also likely won’t need one if you’ve bought a TV in the last year or two.

At the beginning of 2009, it was estimated that there were around 800,000 to 1 million households in the nation that were still exclusively over-the-air television watchers—in Colorado, just a small fraction of that number. In other words, a fraction of a percentage of Americans would have been unable to watch television in their homes had the transition occurred as scheduled.

Which brings me back to my original point. The government has determined that television is a right. Since federal control of the analog broadcast spectrum has been subsidized by taxpayers’ money, the fed had no choice but to offer an alternative to all citizens as the switch to digital was legislated. As a result, the government has decreed that all Americans should be afforded access to television—even if this decision was implied tacitly. And, to protect that right, it was necessary to extend the deadline for the cutoff.

Sure, the founding fathers never imagined the existence of the device (well, it’s possible that Ben Franklin did—he was just crazy enough to have had an inkling), much less the need to regulate citizen access to it. But they never explicitly said privacy was a right either. Yet it’s been at the heart of myriad court cases since.

The truth is, television has become a lifeline for most of us—it’s a primary source of information, a means to provide emergency communication (via the Emergency Broadcast System: “This is a test. This is only a test…”) and the only place where the Wayans brothers have any relevancy. It’s a right, and it’s our duty to make sure we exercise that right, no matter how many David E. Kelly shows we have to sit through.


Lacy is an award-winning food writer and blogger. She lives in Westminster with her family. Google

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