Tom Purcell, 2/23/2009 [Archive]

Botching the Digital Switchover

Botching the Digital Switchover

By Tom Purcell

Well, that didn't go very well.

I speak of the switchover from analog television to digital that was supposed to occur on Feb. 17.

The Congress mandated the switchover in 2005 with good reason. Digital broadcasting offers superior picture resolution, multiple programming options, and it frees up the airwaves for use by emergency responders.

America's 1,800 television stations invested lots of dough to build digital operations. Many were ready to switch over well before Feb 17. But there was a problem. Millions of television viewers weren't ready.

Folks who still watch old analog tubes -- people who receive their TV signal through rabbit-ear antennas, for instance -- needed to do one of three things to prepare:

They could have bought a newfangled digital television.

They could have kept their old tube and subscribed to a cable or satellite service.

Or they could have kept their old tube and antenna and purchased a digital converter box for $40 to $80 (antennas in some areas may not receive digital signals as well as they did analog, but that's the breaks).

The concept was simple enough. It was so simple, in fact, that the Congress decided to complicate it. The Wall Street Journal explained how in a fine editorial last week.

First, the Congress established the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. With a budget of nearly $1.4 billion, the program promised each U.S. household two $40 coupons to purchase two digital converter boxes.

But by November of last year, the Commerce Department told the Congress the program was about to run out of dough. Worse, half of the coupons that had been issued weren't yet redeemed -- and were about to expire.

Congress did what it does best: nothing.

In January, after many coupons had expired, it was clear that millions of American households would not be prepared for the digital switchover. Sure, they could have bought converter boxes with their own money. But why spend your own dough when the government is eager to kick in?

In the face of the growing crisis, the Congress did what it does even better: blame Bush.

By February, just days before the long-planned switchover, the government was desperately behind processing applications for converter-box coupons -- it faced a backlog of more than 4 million. It would take months to catch up.

So the Congress did what it does best of all: stall and spend more dough. It delayed the digital switchover date to June 12. Then it slipped $650 million into the "stimulus" bill to fund even more converter-box coupons.

In any event, despite four years of government planning -- despite numerous public service announcements, newspaper articles, mailers, how-to Web sites, community advocacy programs and millions in taxpayer dough -- approximately 5.8 million households were still not ready for the digital switchover.

I have a hunch things would have gone more smoothly if the government had done nothing at all.

I'll bet people would have figured out what to do on their own, just as my father had to figure out numerous technical innovations over the years.

He sought assistance from the guy at the electronics store. He talked to neighbors. He read the newspaper. He read instructions. As he mastered each concept, he helped others.

He learned how to install an antenna on the chimney and rig it up to three televisions on three separate floors. He spent hours kneeling in front of the tube in search of the perfect picture (all my family ever got to watch was our dad's backside).

He made it through the new stereo system, the Kimball organ and the VCR just as millions of Americans did: without one government program.

Too many politicians view the American public as hapless and clueless. But where the digital switchover is concerned, it's the Congress and the government that are hapless and clueless.

As the Journal speculates, do we really want these birds running our health care?

© 2009 Tom Purcell. Tom is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Sales at (805) 969-2829 or email Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications.

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