In the final step required to make the phase-out of analog TV broadcasts official, President Bush yesterday signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which contains legislation stating that on February 17, 2009, all TV broadcasters nationwide must switch off their analog broadcasts. After that date, televisions that rely solely on analog over-the-air television--typically delivered via rabbit-ear antennas--will go dark.
Anticipating mass hysteria that would arise from millions of Americans losing their free TV, the Act allocates $1.5 billion toward a subsidy for new DTV converter boxes. A converter box would allow televisions that lack a DTV tuner--still the majority of those sold in the United States--to display the new digital broadcasts. When the amount set aside for the subsidy was debated in Congress, many Democrats raised concerns that it wasn't enough to account for the estimated 45 million televisions among 20 million households that rely on analog broadcasts. Details regarding the subsidy still remain vague, such as who would be eligible and how much of the estimated $50 cost for the boxes it would actually cover.
The analog cutoff will likely not affect televisions that rely on cable or satellite programming. All satellite transmissions from DirecTV and Dish Network are digital to begin with and require a set-top box anyway, and cable operators Comcast and Time Warner have announced that they will continue to carry analog and digital feeds of the major networks. According to Multichannel News, cable providers will likely negotiate further measures that will allow customers to continue using their analog TVs after the deadline.
Consumer confusion still reigns regarding the transition to digital. According to a survey of 500 people conducted in December 2005 by Points North Group and Horowitz Associates, just 13 percent of respondents knew that U.S. analog broadcasts would end in three years, and just 23 percent of those surveyed knew that analog TVs would go dark unless connected to a converter box. It's also worth noting that the segment of the population likely to be most affected by the cutoff--the poor and the elderly who don't subscribe to pay TV services--will be the least informed about it. If the government doesn't start educating Americans about the impending switch to digital, it may face serious backlash, and everyone knows that elections are won and lost on TV.