Greenlee School professor sees consumer drawbacks to digital TV conversion

AMES, Iowa -- As the country prepares for the mandated digital broadcast conversion of television airwaves on Feb. 17, an Iowa State University communications professor questions its benefit to consumers and the government's involvement in the conversion process.

Jeff Blevins, an assistant professor in ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, says the public interest was equated with the development of digital television through Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since 2004, Blevins has taught an "Electronic Media Technology and Public Policy" course, which provides a semester-long case study of the Act.

"Ironically, one of the titles that is most vexing for the class is 'Title II: Broadcast Services,' which gave us digital television," Blevins said. "If you look at the totality of the law, it's a deregulatory bill. It's getting government out of communication regulations -- relaxing media ownership rules and extending the period of broadcast licenses. You're having the government do less, except here (Title II) where they're trying to encourage digital television."

He's concluded that through Title II, Congress wanted to reward broadcasters for transitioning to digital service by adding more spectrum allocation to their existing license, as long as it is used for digital broadcast. But Blevins contends that the law ignored the demand side, or the benefit to consumers.

"Instead of letting the market decide, Congress said, 'Well, we're going to have to mandate a switch,'" he said. "And that does make some sense. You want all your broadcasters to use the same standard so there is some consistency. But why not wait until there's some consumer demand for that? This was going to be very expensive, requiring a massive reinvestment in hardware for broadcasters."

While the government offset the cost of digital transition for broadcasters by increasing the size of their allotted spectrum and loosening the restrictions on media ownership, Blevins reports that the law did little to offset the costs for consumers.

"Now, consumers' analog television receivers are rendered obsolete, and digital sets are still quite expensive," he said. "I used to joke in class before 2008 that I could hardly imagine a government subsidy for each citizen to have a digital television; but in essence that is what has taken place with the $40 vouchers for the converter boxes."

The government budgeted enough for 4.3 million people to apply for the vouchers, but nearly twice as many -- 7.2 million -- have applied. Unfunded applicants are now on a waiting list until further funds become available.

"The expectation was that many consumers would go out and buy new televisions -- upgrading to flat screen HDTVs. The economic slump has dampened that expectation," Blevins said. "The budget set by the Bush Administration ($1.5 billion) to cover the cost of the converter box coupons has run out."

He also sees these consumer concerns about the transition to digital-only broadcasting:

  • Digital cliff effect. "Digital broadcast signals do not carry as well over long distances -- and this is a particular concern in rural areas, like some of those in Iowa, that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting," he said. "If an analog signal carries over a long distance, the picture may be grainy, but still visible, and there is audio -- perhaps with some static. However, digital signals do not carry as far, and the picture over greater distances tends to be pixilated, with no audio, or there is no signal at all. Although estimates vary, roughly 20 million of 125 million TV homes (about 18 percent) do not have cable or satellite television service and rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcast reception."
  • Misconception that DTV is HDTV. "Yes, you are now receiving a 'digital' signal, but it is not a 'high definition' signal, which requires a set with 1080i scanning (over a thousand lines of resolution) and a 16:9 aspect ratio," Blevins said. "While the digital picture is better than analog, it is not nearly the same quality as HDTV."
  • Many cable and satellite companies have seized upon the transition deadline to upgrade their services and programming packages. "This, again, increases the cost of transition for consumers," he said.

Blevins agrees that digital broadcasting does result in an improved product. And he admits that if it weren't for the government mandate, the digital conversion may not have taken place in a timely manner because of the expense to broadcasters.

But he still questions whether it's the government's business to be involved.

"I think it's questionable at least," Blevins said. "If they are going to be involved, a more holistic approach would have been better. But this is not uncommon in the FCC -- and you could probably argue in other administrative agencies as well -- where they are, in some respect, captured by the very industries they are supposed to regulate."