My 85-year-old father Arnie has rabbit ears. He can adjust them just fine with no help, which is important to him. But my dad is going to be losing his ears, when Congress has mandated all television signals switch to digital, making analog static and obsolete. While the world shudders from economic crisis, my elderly dad just wants a clear picture screen.
In October, a Nielsen Company news release reported that 9.6 million U.S. TV households were still unprepared for the digital switch and would be unable to receive any television programming at all if the transition occurred at that time.
Dad watches mostly news on his analog box in the Midwest. He has always been interested in current events. I grew up on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on public broadcasting. When I was broke raising five children, he told me, “always find money for a newspaper because you need to know what is going on in the world.” Dinner time found us in lively political debates, with dad lapsing into his native German tongue when trying to push a point.
Two years ago my sister, brother, and I got involved with our dad’s finances when he forgot to enter purchases in his checkbook register. Twice widowed, dad lost two wives to cancer and once he was alone, he didn’t have their money organization skills to help him. After he overlooked paying rent for months, he turned his pride and his bank account over to us kids.
We moved him from his town home to a 12-story government subsidized housing complex with 500 residents in a Minneapolis suburb. Everyone there was either disabled or a senior citizen. Since he was facing hard economic times, the first “luxury” to go was cable television. He brought his 1998 Sony TV with him to keep track of the outside world. Most of the residents had free analog service anyway, so dad didn’t mind. In November, everyone’s rent went up.
A part of the Greatest Generation, my dad is a WWII veteran, a former pilot in the United States Air Force. His building is filled with veterans. I escorted him to a Veteran’s Day celebration and just about the entire complex attended. Dad is on his housing Board of Directors, continuing his lifetime of community service.
I reminded him about the ominous February digital date looming ahead. My dad, the news junkie I grew up with, stared at me and said “What do you mean?”
I told him, “You have to purchase an analog-to-digital-converter-box-with-a -government-coupon, Dad. It’s on their website.” Unfortunately, my dad doesn’t have a computer to print out the government three-step coupon application process. (We bought him a Dell desktop a while ago and trained him how to use it. He put a plastic cover over it and never turned it on). Most of the residents where he lives don’t have computers, either.
The government-subsidized $40-off coupon takes six weeks to get. My dad has already lost the coupon my brother arranged to get for him. In addition, the analog-to-digital converter box requires an installation. My dad always told me “a screw driver is an intricate piece of machinery,” so I don’t hold much hope of him installing the box even if he could figure out how to get one.
Dad won’t be able to access the Federal Communications Commission website information on “The Digital TV Transition: What You Need To Know About DTV.” I could print him a copy of the multi-paged fact sheet, but he doesn’t really care that the reason is to “free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for public safety and wireless companies.” He just cares that he can watch The NBC Nightly News. His link to the wider world will go blank when he loses his antenna.
Regulating air space has been a way for the FCC to pour billions of dollars into the United States Treasury since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 put broadcast spectrum up for bids. The auctions, based on My Beautiful Mind’s John Nash’s Nobel Prize-winning economic game theory, sells radio bands, with profits going into the U.S. Treasury. Some wireless companies pay millions of dollars for air space. Critics, like internet architect David Reed and author David Weinberger, think it’s silly to sell air. Weinberger goes so far to call it a myth.
The FCC provides weekly public updates on how many converter box coupons have been turned in and the cost. For instance, the week of January 14, more than 26 million households had been “approved,” and more than 44 million coupons mailed out of more than 48 million coupon requests. 43 million coupons had been mailed out and more than 13 million coupons had already expired. The total coupon funding is $1.34 billion, and it was all committed. That explains more than two million “coupons on wait list.” Anyone who has not yet been approved will have to wait until already-issued coupons expire without being used.
My 24 year-old daughter, a struggling New York City actress living with two other actors, opted for viewing news and favorite shows on her laptop. It is cheaper for them to split a $45 Time Warner internet bill and watch everything on computers, but I can’t imagine my dad doing that.
My dad is fortunate that my siblings and I can help him. Many others in his complex don’t have family to assist. Countless senior citizens, and poor disabled people might soon have no picture screen at all.
Barbara Teed is a media studies major at New School University in New York City. She lives in Bloomington.