The shift to digital television is scheduled to occur on February 18, 2009 in the US. This historic shift, often compared to the inauguration of color TV, has been referred to as “The Digital TV Transition” by the FCC and has been widely publicized for the past several months. As I write this column, the FCC website provides the countdown to the digital transition as 74 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 49 seconds. This is an important moment for television scholars: the future of television is in the public spotlight, and there are opportunities to draw attention to various TV-related issues ranging from media conglomeration to e-waste from writer’s salaries to spectrum allocation, particularly since the issue of media reform got lost in the 2008 elections. Further, following on important work by William Boddy, John Caldwell, and Lynn Spigel among others, we might also consider how this historic moment suggests new directions for TV research, whether on the relationship between the FCC and citizens/viewers, local and regional television, or the visualization of television technologies.
Though regulators and manufacturers have already made many of the key decisions about the future of television, technological negotiations remain for many consumer/citizens. There are an estimated 19 million US households still using analog television sets. (In technology studies we often hear of the “early adopters” and we might call this group the “diehard users.”) Owners of analog sets will have to decide how and whether they want to continue to receive a television signal and can either purchase a digital converter box or a television set with a digital tuner, or can subscribe to cable or satellite television. The federal government has subsidized the transition and the National Telecommunication and Information Administration is administering a $1.5 billion coupon program to support those who want to retrofit their analog receivers with converter boxes.National Targeting for Digital Conversion
Despite TV scholars’ recent focus on cable, satellite, interactive and web-based TV, it is important to recognize that a significant chunk of the US TV audience—roughly 15%—has continued to receive “free” over the air signals for decades. What if the moment of the digital transition led to scholarly investigations of the analog diehards rather than the technophiles that raced to join the alleged digital TV “revolution”? Given the fixation on novelty in our techno-culture and often in our field, we have much to learn from consumers who, whether by default or by choice, continue to use machines simply because they still work. It’s too easy to equate the use of old machines with poverty or reticence.