Defining Visions: Consumer Beware

I live in Washington, DC, and as the old adage goes, the Union is most secure when the Congress is not in session. Well, Congress has been in session more or less continuously for the last few weeks, and, as usual, little good has come of it, even in the home-theater arena. But I've been in Washington long enough to have coined my own truism about life in the nation's capital: Beware any trade group that says it is performing a public service. Usually it is serving only itself.

A case in point: Congress is deep in debate over when the transition to digital television will be declared over and all of the nation's 1650 television stations will be required to turn off their analog transmitters. Given the proposals on the table, a reasonable bet is that analog broadcasting has three or four years of life left. That will leave only the new, digital stations on the air, perhaps disenfranchising anyone still watching over-the-air analog TV.

Wouldn't you know it, just in time, the Consumer Electronics Association provided new research showing that almost no one is watching over-the-air TV any more in any case. "The percentage of American homes that rely solely on an over-the-air signal is low and shrinking," Gary Shapiro, the CEA's president, told an industry group. "Currently, 87 percent of homes have access to cable or satellite and more pipelines capable of carrying video programming." So, he inferred, disenfranchisement should not be a major concern for anyone.

What he didn't say was that the results of his study were quite convenient for the CEA and its members. After all, just a few days before, Shapiro had told Congress that he supported an early end to the transition. And why not? Just as soon as analog broadcasting ends, millions of consumers will have to run out to buy a new digital television set or a converter box—from CEA members.

What Shapiro also didn't say was that his members have fought tooth and nail to defeat and then delay a rule that requires TV manufacturers to build DTV receivers into nearly all of their TVs. Anyone who favors advancing the transition certainly should favor that, wouldn't you think? But not the CEA. The reason: Including these receivers will add to the cost of televisions, possibly hurting sales.

The National Association of Broadcasters is on the other side of this debate. But the NAB is hardly with the angels. The NAB does not favor ending the transition early. Their public argument states that there is the "potential for consumer outrage" when millions find their TV service cut off. Beware—this is another trade group supposedly looking out for the public's interests.

Some in Washington have long argued that broadcasters want to hold on to both their analog and digital channels forever. Undoubtedly some do, even though the cost of running two transmitters is painfully high. But in my view, they are just as concerned about the consumer outrage. Who is a consumer going to call if they can't get their local NBC affiliate any longer. Not Shapiro. Not Congress. Not the FCC.

They will call the station, probably flooding the switchboard. And if viewers suddenly are unable to see a station's shows, they also cannot see the ads. And that, of course, would be a catastrophe for the stations.

Maybe the NAB's arguments are not quite so obviously self-serving. But the organization's blow-torch rhetorical style is. Consider just one sentence from their news release blasting Shapiro's remarks: "Disenfranchising huge numbers of Americans from access to local TV should not be based on misleading data from a trade group of offshore receiver manufacturers."

In other words, the CEA's data is not only wrong, it's foreign. The NAB did cite recent Congressional testimony from the Government Accountability Office showing that "roughly 21 million homes" nationwide are still wholly reliant on over-the-air analog TV. What's more, while as many as 80 million homes have cable or satellite service, many of them have one or more TVs, in the basement or the attic, that are not connected to either of these services. Consumer groups put the number of individual TVs in this category at 80 million. But that, too, sounds exaggerated, and no one really knows for sure.

The trade-group acrimony and exaggeration aside, they are arguing over a real issue. If, as seems likely, Congress ends the transition soon, that will leave tens of millions of people who still rely on analog OTA service high and dry—all so the government can sell the analog spectrum and spend the few billion in proceeds on who-knows-what in the blink of an eye.

The consumer groups—Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America—say that Congress needs to come up with $4 billion to subsidize set-top boxes for all those people at $50 each. Legislation in the House of Representatives is being held up over debate on the set-top subsidy issue. In the Senate, John McCain, who has watched digital television issues for a decade, has offered a bill that would provide $468 million to pay for set-top boxes for low-income families.

In my opinion, that is not nearly enough. I can afford a $50 set-top box, and I imagine most of you can, too. But I don't want to be forced, on orders of the government, to spend $50—or perhaps more, if I have more than one TV that needs a converter—when I would rather use the money for something else.

Don't count on the trade groups to look out for you. And certainly don't count on Congress. If you feel strongly about this, here is one case where it would be worthwhile to let your Congressman know.