Defining Visions: The End is Nigh!

Washington is chomping at the bit to shut down analog broadcasting; has the time finally come to let go of the past?

Prepare to buy a new digital TV, or a tuner box, sooner than you might have expected. Washington is growing serious about ending the digital-television transition as soon as possible.

When the federal government set the transition's rules in December 1996, regulators stipulated that the transition would be over and analog broadcasting would end in 2006. Back then, 2006 seemed an impossibly long time away. But now, of course, it is next year.

Soon after approving the transition rules, federal regulators amended them so that no city would be required to end analog broadcasting until 85 percent of the area's TV viewers had TVs with digital tuners installed or attached. We are, of course, a long way from that goal. But some in Washington want to scrap that idea. In December, Congress placed a provision in its intelligence-reform bill offering a "sense of Congress" that broadcasters must vacate their analog spectrum on time next year.

The provision holds no force of law. But given the point of view it offered, the Federal Communications Commission cannot help but be encouraged to push its own plan to end the transition early.

Michael Powell, the outgoing FCC chairman, observed in January that the 85 percent penetration rule is problematic on its face. "How's that going to be measured?" he asked. "By one TV in every house, or will it be measured by one TV in every room in every house?" No one has said.

Powell acknowledged that the 2006 deadline "seemed a long time away when we set it." But as every year closes, he acknowledged, it seems as if the date when the transition will end is far off. "At some point," he added, "it's going to have to be this year."

The FCC has a plan that would use an artifice to meet the 85 percent penetration rule by saying that everyone connected to a cable system should be counted. After all, cable programming originates in digital form. In some homes, it is displayed in digital form, and in others it is downcoverted to analog, depending on which service the subscriber has. Therefore, under the FCC scheme, every cable subscriber has digital service—or a convertor box, even if that "box" is at the cable company's office.

At a stroke, under this plan, 75 percent of the country would be counted as having digital service, and the government would give the remaining 10 percent another two years to come along. So the transition would end on Jan. 1, 2009—less than four years from now. The final rule will likely fall somewhere between the Congressional suggestion to end the transition next year and the FCC plan, meaning that analog broadcasting is likely to end somewhere between 2006 and 2008.

Kenneth Ferree, the FCC's Media Bureau chief, devised the plan. In January, he said it was finished and is up for a vote by the commission.

The National Association of Broadcasters opposes this plan. The NAB says consumers nationwide have 73 million television sets not connected to a cable or satellite service—second or third sets in numerous homes. And to equip all of them with convertor boxes at $300 apiece (probably an exaggerated price) would cost $22 billion.

The longstanding impetus for ending the transition has always been money. Selling off the unused analog spectrum will raise $5 billion to $10 billion, according to most estimates. That is enough to pay for one week of our occupation of Iraq, maybe two.

But the drive to recover the analog spectrum got a boost last spring when the 9/11 commission wrote in its report that reacquiring the spectrum was vital for "public safety" since some of the spectrum could be used for emergency radio services.

The FCC is following the script set out for a shutdown of the analog spectrum next year. It is now in the process of negotiating with television stations over which channel assignment each station will keep when the transition is over, the old analog channel or the new digital channel. That is one in a series of steps, past and future, that were set down in a timetable accompanying the 1996 law.

One unforseen fact, still in play nine years after that law was passed: Almost 250 television stations nationwide have still failed to make the transition to digital broadcasting. The NAB says 1,344 of the nation's 1,600 stations are on the air with digital. You can bet that a good number of the recalcitrant stations, now years behind schedule, will still not have made the transition next year when analog broadcasting is scheduled to end.

When the analog service does shut down, sometime between next year and 2009, it is certain that millions of people nationwide—those without cable service who use rabbit ears for over-the-air TV—will yelp with complaint. Some in Congress and elsewhere have suggested that the government supply convertor boxes to these people. Late last year, the Bush administration said it opposed that idea and proposed instead that TV stations pay a tax for every year they hold onto their analog spectrum. That money, the White House said, could be used to pay for convertor boxes.

Well, that TV-tax idea has been thrown into the budget year after year, by President Bush and President Clinton before him. Congress takes it out every year, responding to lobbying by the broadcasters. (Every member of Congress must be on television to win re-election.)

So the government wants to take back the spectrum. But no one is saying who will deal with the many questions and problems that decision will spawn.