By: ML Dellafiora
Editor’s Note: Last week, Congress passed the DTV Delay Act, which extends the deadline for TV stations to complete the transition to digital to June 12, 2009. However, TV stations are not required to wait until June 12, and some may complete the transition earlier, as previously scheduled. The legislation is expected to be signed by President Obama. The digital conversion will free up parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety communications such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads, in addition to allowing viewers access to more channels.
Just because I’m still stuck in the seventies, only bought my first CD player a year ago, and think there is no other music than The Voice, a.k.a. Vern Gosdin, is no reason to punish thousands of innocents. This digital conversion melee has got me bugged.
As both a conscientious woman of the new millennium and graduate student of social work, I can’t stand silently by; action is my call name, and “convert” I am not. Not willingly. You see, it started when I made my first phone call for those forty-dollar coupons issued by the government. The NTIA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is in charge of the TV converter box coupon distribution program as we go from analog signal to that of digital. Analog has been the Head Monky-monk on the block for the last fifty years. The switch is supposed to free up hundreds of additional channels that will come on the market in the future, offering us rabbit-eared folks an intimacy with our remotes that we have never known.
“Wait’ll you see how clear your picture will be,” my techno-addicted friend, Jaysen, assures. Not enough to bait my enthusiasm, I assure him. I happen to like my hand-me-down Zenith that gives me a backache whenever I mop the kitchen. I’ve grown accustomed to the sturdiness of that pedestal to which it is drilled (and chained?). And no, I did not question the previous owner about the set’s earliest beginnings, though the word “motel” may have been mentioned a time or two.
The coupon gods informed me that I was not entitled to any coupons, as my home was listed as a commercial business. Huh? Four e-mails later I got someone to listen and access a premier real estate Web site where the resolution is so clear, you can see the burrs on my goathead thorns in the backyard. Two coupons coming up. The next problem surfaced ninety days later. Where were the coupons? Another e-mail assured me they had been mailed to my house. House? No, house, no! I said I had a post office box! They were to go there! The waif in me came out: Could I please have some more, sir? Would you re-send? A big fat “no” came through the line. Then another and another, even from management where I explained the problem. Too bad, so sad. They stopped answering my mail.
I was befuddled and flabbergasted, all on the same day. What do the elderly do? The shut-ins? The disabled? What if they have not even half the technology skills I do, or any access to technology at all? What if they have trouble hearing the instructions through the phone? The implications are many. At least I was fifty years young with a little fight still in me. Besides, I have four TVs! There was no way I was spending $240 on converter boxes. Get up and fight! Vern would.
I stopped the mailman on the street a few days later. The coupons, he explained, if mailed to houses with expired forwarding directives, are automatically destroyed as bulk mail. There was no way I was getting my chubby little fists on even one coupon; all my friends were using theirs, too. I tried to have out-of-region friends call and say they were my new renters. They smiled sympathetically.
I have learned many things from this forced “conversion.” Perhaps those on both sides of the fifteenth century Crusades could have said the same. I learned that you cannot trust those snappy-sweet ads that tell you how easy it is to plug this wire into that, and then, bingo, you’re ready for the big day. I learned that one of our local channels was speeding up its conversion by one full week, on the very day President Obama announced a possible delay date to help older, lower socioeconomic, indisposed, and less digitally-astute Americans. My home state of New Mexico is one of the least compatible with only thirty percent preparedness. According to the 2006 U.S. Census, it is ranked fourth in the nation in poverty. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization whose primary mission is to foster human service reforms and community supports, ranks New Mexico as 48th in the U.S. for children’s poverty. We’re not a state that can casually cast out the old and outdated. I also learned that well-publicized investigative “action” folks don’t always answer their mail; none wrote back.
Personally, I think it was the second-by-second countdown board that flashed on the screen one night that literally scared me and had me rushing off to a department store the next morning. I was not going to be left behind. I even attempted to install the converter as soon as I got home. After all, I only had to plug this into that, right? Ah, but the scads of tape on the outside of the box! I pried and peeled, and even scissored my way, and still ended up having to cut through the box itself with a box cutter. What do the elderly do? I groaned. I thought of the seniors with whom I had spent my second year internship at the Senior Connection Program; none of them could have cut through that packing, not even with King Arthur’s sword. What if one had no thumbs? No hand? Self-determination was null and voided.
I finally…plugged this-into-that, but not one of those commercials had mentioned the button pushing and scanning I would have to configure next. I even took out a yellow highlighter and marked where it said in the directions that a green light meant the box was “off,” and a red one meant “on.” Where was that loud weeping and gnashing of teeth coming from?
“Jaysen, could you come over and hook up this thing?” I was desperate; I threw in some bacon and eggs. Happily, not even ten minutes in the door, my forward-thinking genius friend had the green light on. The picture was stunning; I could appreciate the difference. Still, the torturous journey to a more comprehensive shot of Oprah’s pearly whites cannot be diminished, but I was at least one of those able in the end, to secure a box and an installer, but without Jaysen, the Today Show would have had to go on without me.
“Jay, think we could go next door to Mr. Potter’s?”
Bill Potter was the neighbor who two Christmases earlier had lent me his snow shovel when there were none to be had in all of Albuquerque. They had sold out after three days of constant deluge. Bill had become even dearer to me because I had a flat fifty-six-year-old roof. No shovel could have easily meant collapse of my roof.
“What’s up?” Jaysen looked at me quizzically as he munched on a bacon strip.
“Bill’s eighty years old. He’s got a heart of gold and funny little ears that look like a rabbit’s.”
A smile came across my friend’s face.
“Sure thing,” he said.
*Note: “December 2008 coupon requests totaled 7.2 million…By January 4, 2009 the Program’s current funding ceiling was reached, resulting in a waiting list for new coupon requests that will be filled as funds from expiring coupons become available. Based on current 60% redemption levels, as many as another six million coupons could be distributed as unused coupons expire over the next three months.” – from TV Converter Box Coupon Program Bulletin, January 2009 (http://www.ntiadtv.gov/download/newsletter.cfm)
** Complaints about the NTIA’s handling of coupon distribution and possible replacement of lost coupons can be logged at 1-888-CALL-FCC.
ML Dellafiora teaches Service Learning and Writing for high school students, while pursuing her MSW, and fighting the forces of darkness where she finds them. She is currently at work on a guide for Native teens. Ya’ah t’eeh!
2006 US Census Bureau figures, www.usccb.org
August 2007 Annie E. Casey Foundation figures, www.aecf.org