NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Your old TV set may well go dark in 2009, and believe it or not, that's a good thing.Yeah, they sure do, but the poor stiffs who still use rabbit ears to get their signals rather than paying, oh, about $500 per month to get hundreds of channels they neither want nor need, well, who ya gonna call?
That's because, at the end of last year Congress approved legislation that set a date for the switch from analog to digital television -- February 17, 2009.
But managing this transition -- which will render about 70 million TV sets obsolete -- will be not be easy. Nothing is, when the federal government gets involved. Indeed, Congress will soon have to revisit this issue, to clean up this mess it has created.
This fixed switch date allows consumers, electronics manufacturers, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators to plan for the transition. All have a lot at stake.
Let me see if we have this right. Congress passed a cable reform bill about a decade ago that was going to help consumers, right? But then what happened? Consumer's bills have been going up at an annual rate that makes college tuition hikes and medical cost escalation seem like amateur hour.
Then, let's see--was it the FCC that "de-regulated" the radio waves, permitting huge network buyouts and the near-entire elimination of local radio programming that was replaced by syndicates and shock jocks? Weren't these guys supposed to guarantee that the radio waves were used at least in part to protect and promote local information and talent?
Federal stewardship of the airwaves has, frankly, proved to be an unmitigated disaster since probably the late 1950s onward. It has led to the inexorable decline of local programming, the vulgarization of national programming, a locust-plague of commercials on TV and radio, and a general coarsening of the culture. And we're taking it easy on these people today.
Before the Feds resell the analog TV spectrum to "private industry," perhaps we should be asking questions like, "If all of us have to pay for everything we watch now, does that still mean that we have to watch 10 minutes of commercials per half-hour of programming?" Or, "If we're going to subsidize people who can't afford the switch, how long do we subsidize them, and how much higher will the subsidy go every year?"
As with cable TV, we consumers are promised the moon, but all we end up getting is smaller and smaller timeslices of smuttier and smuttier programs, loaded with obnoxious ads and, on cable, pre-empted by logos and dancing little commercials that happen during the actual program. Meanwhile, movie credits get folded over to the side where you can't read them and are supplanted by even MORE ads. And all the while, cable victims get to pay more and more for this, even as they get less and less programming.
Wonk is no big fan of the socialists at Consumer's Union, but they're dead on here. This big switch is no deal for anyone but the people who'll profit immensely from the spectrum auction. Maybe the Feds ought to consider RENTING the spectrum and making a profit for us citizens. Hey, there's a concept.