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The Revolution will be Televised
—But You'll Need Cable To Get It

ART TIMES April 2006

At the newspaper where I work, we were having a staff meeting the other day when the subject of the new format for calendar listings came up. It's all done electronically now. Basically the only way to submit your organization's listings is via the Internet, and while you can still read them in the paper, you can search comprehensive listings online.

Someone mentioned that a reader who doesn't have a computer complained about this. Probably an older person; according to a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in January 2005, only 31 percent of Americans age 65 and older have ever gone online. What am I supposed to do?, that reader asked. Well, he was told, somebody in your group probably has a computer, so find that person and designate him or her to be the computer guru. I guess we all pretty much felt that this solved the problem. Ours, anyway.

The company that owns our newspaper is currently upgrading its computer systems, a process that, for anyone who has ever gone through it, is something akin to having all your teeth, both hips and both knees replaced, all at the same time. Needless to say, we are not a happy bunch, but the paper comes out every day and we are still getting paid, so we are dealing with it.

Out in the real world, however, it's a different story, and it's about to get serious. 
I watch hardly any television at all. I don't have cable — pay for TV? Who thought that up? — but I occasionally flick around the channels to see what's on. One station I liked, which showed movies, most of which I'd already seen, was WLNY, Channel 55, based in Melville, N.Y. I thought it was one of the better local stations in the metro area, but recently it ceased to appear on any of my three TVs; there's only static now. I e-mailed it to ask, "Did you go off the air, or move your antenna or something?"

The station obviously had gotten prior e-mails, because it responded with a long Q&A. Basically it said it has implemented, ahead of schedule, its switch to digital broadcasting, as part of the Federal Communications Commission's requirement for all television stations to begin converting this year.

WLNY is currently available on cable systems and satellite services, and digitally broadcast to homes with a digital receiver or an analog set with a "digital to analog" converter.

Now I don't have a "digital to analog" converter. I'm not even sure what it is. I do know, from reading articles over the last couple of years, that this change is coming. In 1996, Congress, the nation's broadcasters, the FCC and the electronics industry hatched this scheme to provide high definition television (HDTV), at a minimum cost of $100 per converter, or up to hundreds or thousands for new HDTV sets.

As reported by syndicated technology columnist Michael J. Himowitz last year: "Collectively, the cost will run to billions, most of which will go into driving up a trade deficit that's already past 100 percent on the scary meter. And as usual, the burden will fall heaviest on those who can afford it least."

Since the technology is new, and most TV stations are still broadcasting analog, I don't know anyone who owns a converter. If the experience of my newspaper's upgrade is any guide, it's going to take a while to work out the bugs from the new equipment and/or software. There's no getting around it, however; just as we have told our old-school reader to find somebody with a computer, we, the public, have been told by the government, the electronics industry and the broadcasters to buy a converter, or a new TV, or just don't bother us.

The deadline for the final conversion to digital is 2008, but if you're missing some stations already, the reason is that, like WLNY, they've jumped the gun. "The only reason the TV-watching public hasn't panicked over the proposed disappearance of analog broadcasts is this: The primary TV set in 80 percent of American households is hooked up to a cable box and doesn't get its signals over the air in the first place," continued Himowitz.

Eventually, then, this will all blow over. Everyone will be forced to buy cable, or converters, or expensive new TVs. But we'll do it, for a simple reason: Television is the opiate of the masses. You take that away, and we have nothing to do but think. About the government, and how poorly it's serving us. About how unhappy our lives might be. Pretty soon you're going to have a riot on your hands. A revolution. Real change.

We can't afford that. It's cheaper to get cable. 

(Joseph P. Griffith is a newspaper editor and freelance writer in New York).

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