Well, the deadline for the big television conversion to digital is only a month away and I missed my shot at getting the government vouchers for the converter box. Last week, the Commerce Department announced they had hit the $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress for the coupon program, which means professional procrastinators like me are screwed when analog broadcast goes dark on February 17. (For those of you who don't know what digital conversion I'm talking about, visit www.dtv.gov and then crawl back into whatever Tora Bora cave you've been living in, because the media has been blabbing incessantly about this for years.)
My girlfriend was able to sign us up on a waiting list for vouchers that will supposedly be issued once more money becomes available in Washington. I'm guessing this will be around the time the Detroit automakers pay back their federal bailouts, so we've put the wait list in the "worthless" category.
I could just break down and buy a couple of the $40 gadgets, of course. But a more likely outcome is that my girlfriend and I will give up on TV altogether -- and I don't think we're alone among young people.
Though I've never had cable, I am not some kill-your-television Luddite. I like to watch. A lot. The problem with TV is that so much of it is complete garbage. Have you seen Momma's Boys? It's NBC's new reality show, where a group of bachelorettes vie for the affection of three eligible bachelors -- and their possessive mothers. I heard Dick Cheney had to get a special torture memo from the Office of Legal Council just to let it on the air. Between avoiding bottom-feeding reality shows and the increasing number of infomercials, most of my time in front of the tube is spent flipping through channels trying to find something half decent to fry my brain cells on.
So I put the money saved skipping cable into a $19-per-month Netflix membership. It's great. Huge selection of films, addictive HBO shows like The Wire and Showtime's Weeds, no late fees, and they're all mailed directly to your home. Convenient, but still tricky. Since only a limited number of DVDs can be taken out at one time, I have to organize a mailing schedule a week or more into the future for the day we want to watch a particular movie. If no movie has arrived on the one or two nights a week when both of us have free time and want to veg out, we either have to go to Blockbuster (a waste of money and gas) or watch whatever shitty shows happen to be on the eight broadcast channels we receive.
But things changed over Christmas. We purchased a laptop. Nothing fancy, but it has quick wireless Internet and good video functionality. After recently discovering online video sites like Hulu.com, I wonder why I'd bother picking up the remote again. A joint venture of NBC and Fox, Hulu has full-length movies and shows like The Simpsons, 30 Rock, The Daily Show -- pretty much the only things worth watching on television, anyway. ABC.com, CBS.com and PBS.org offer full episodes from their sites, as well. (Thank you, Frontline, for making me feel a little bit better about wasting my time online.) During the month of October, Americans viewed a record 13.5 billion videos online. Billion! The elephant in the room is still Google's YouTube.com, but the recent ascendancy of other sites shows that online video is quickly transforming from an ocean of random clips featuring massive Russian street fights and TV newscasters hurting themselves -- hilarious, by the way -- into a true mainstream medium.
How mainstream? A few months ago, a friend's younger brother invited me over for dinner. He and his girlfriend are recent college graduates and live in a renovated loft on the industrial side of town. Their place is small, but nice. Instead of a television set, they had a flat-screen monitor poached from an old Dell sitting on a TV stand. Any time they want to watch "television," they plug their laptop into the monitor and pull up the video they desire. Since neither of them had a TV in college it didn't make sense for them to get one now. They could give a shit about vouchers for digital converter boxes because, he explained, the idea of watching television shows on a traditional set with a traditional schedule makes about as much sense to them as installing a phone land line. (Translation: it makes no sense.)
In the late '80s, when the idea to fully switch American TVs from analog to digital began gaining momentum, the Internet and, particularly, Internet video were still but glimmers in some geek's eye. When Congress passed legislation in 1996 requiring that television broadcasters make the conversion, the biggest concern was mobs of pissed-off rerun watchers rioting in the streets, demanding their daily Dr. Who injections. A letter written last week by John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama's presidential transition team, urging members of Congress to postpone the conversion, only cited how troubles with the converter-box coupon program would affect the elderly, poor and rural TV viewers.
"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," Podesta wrote.
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While everyone is thinking about ways ensure that the granny index will have continued access to The Price is Right -- an important matter, I agree -- there has been no discussion of how the conversion might hasten a trend of younger viewers abandoning the television entirely. A potential loss of younger, channel-flippers to the Internet wouldn't bode well for stations whose advertising revenue depends on capturing that key 18-to-34-year-old demographic.
So far the Internet has slowly bled audience and profits from every other media industry except television. Businesses are still unwilling to pay the same amount of money for ads on the Internet. Just look at the massive pig fuck known as the newspaper industry, chronicled exhaustively on this blog by Michael Roberts. Even if TV networks were able to capture the same viewers online, it's unclear if that would transfer over into the huge amounts of revenue needed to produce some of these shows. It's not hard to imagine television falling into the same cost-cutting spiral that has consumed so many other mediums. Can you say more Momma's Boys?
Should I fork over $40 for digital converter box? Or should I toss the channel changer and just use my TV as a Netflix movie theater? Maybe I won't have to decide. Reports as of Tuesday say that the Senate is considering Obama's request to delay the switchover for three months in order find more funding for the vouchers and educate the public. They should call it the Couch Potato Bailout Package. Frankly, I think the millions could be better used in other ways, such as saving us from complete economic disaster. But what do I know?
One suggestion, though: Along with worrying about how many Americans don't know about the conversion, the television industry should also be worried about how many people don't care.