Problems with TV Digital Conversion Plan
First, a word about what this isn't: This isn't about whether television is good or bad, or whether we should or should not be watching it. I will already concede that I think we would all be better off if none of us had televisions in our homes. But most of us do. And very soon, many of those televisions are not going to work anymore, unless we get a digital converter box. How much have we really thought about this? How will this impact our economy and our environment? What kinds of unintended consequences might be lurking in this hasty conversion? This goes beyond a debate about whether or not television sets are "bourgie." So let's not have that one here. (Or, you can if you want. But that's not what this article is about.)
I might as well confess to you, I have two television sets, and I watch them both. No, not "just the history channel" either. I do not have cable. So I am one of millions of people who will require a digital converter box to watch television at all, once the conversion from analogue to digital is made early next year. I am also one of millions of people who doesn't have a lot of extra cash laying around to buy a new tv set, or even just a $49 to $60 converter box. So when the government announced that it would be handing out $40 coupons for the boxes, I duly called and ordered mine. When the coupons arrived (in the form of a plastic debit card that can only be used on a converter box), the accompanying letter announced that the coupon had to be used within 6 months of receipt or it would be void. The 6 month deadline was the end of June, and so that's when I went out to get my digital converter box. And so now, I can share with you my own observations about what it means to switch the nation from analogue to digital.
First, let's quickly talk about the logistics and aesthetics of the thing. I can tell you that the use of a digital converter is IRRITATING. It's bulky and icky to look at. It has its own remote, and a regular remote does not work with it. So you need at least two separate remotes: One to operate your television set, another to operate the converter box. If you have a VCR and do not have a universal remote, then you need three of them (one for the TV, one for the box, and one for the VCR). Also, it takes forever to change the channel with a converter box. Instead of just flipping the channel when you press a button or turn a dial, it has to "scan" for several seconds before actually changing the channel. Finally, if you are like me and do not have cable, then you are probably used to the way some channels come in better than others. You might be watching some shows through a little static. When you convert to digital, you will no longer get the static-y channels at all. The box simply scans for awhile, looking for a signal, and then tells you "no signal," and that's it. (Sometimes, I have been able to BARELY get one of these stations, but the signal cuts in and out and all I get is these big, blocky, pixilated blotches that stop and start, and the audio cuts in and out. But usually, I just get the "no signal" and a dark screen.)
I should also mention: You know how the guy on PBS has been telling us how great digital will be, because we'll get "more channels"? Well. Guffaw. Actually, what I have been getting is either multiple copies of the SAME station, or in the case of PBS, several channels of the same show, along with an extra channel of something really abominable like "barbecue university," or yet another episode of "antiques roadshow." BLA. So far, it has not proven valuable to me to have these so-called "extra channels." Perhaps you will have a different perspective. Maybe you like a dark screen with "audio only" nonsense, or an extra channel showing TMZ. I do not find this useful.
So, obviously, there has not been a lot of value added to me with regard to the digital conversion. But there are issues that are much more serious than how long it takes to change a channel, or whether I can still watch South Park. (If those were the only issues, obviously, I would not be posting this story here.)
When I went to get my converter box, the first thing that I noticed is that it was made in China. I bought mine at Fred Meyers, and it was the the only model available there. I checked Radio Shack, and found the same thing. I went from one store to another, and each time, I found that the only available models were all Made in China. The second thing I noticed is that the boxes were all between $49 and $60. I went for the $49 version. That meant I had to pay $9 to keep that television set on. I started thinking about the economic ramifications of $9 to $20 coming out of pockets all over America, for each non-digital television in the country, all going over to non-Union corporations in China. And then, I realized two related facts: First, the subsidized $40 coupons are also coming out of our pockets. These are paid for by American tax dollars. So that means $40 to $60, multiplied millions of times, coming from our pockets and going overseas to some giant corporation, in China, to watch television. Second, many homes have more than two television sets. (I know... "Bourgie.") The point is, there are an awful lot of dollars leaving an already spiraling American economy, to pay for a hunk of plastic made in China by workers who were probably paid fractions of pennies for each piece. Is this really a good strategic decision to be making? China, after all, is one of the very few nations on earth with an even more abysmal record on human rights than that of the United States. Why is my government requiring millions of Americans to make such a purchase? And why couldn't a local, unionized factory be commissioned to build converter boxes, if they knew far in advance that this was going to be required?
The second thing I noticed, when I picked up my box, was the waste. It started with the plastic debit-card coupons and associated junk mail. It culminated with the cardboard box, filled with plastic pillows, plastic wrapping, cardboard cushions, wire winds, and inane pieces of paper filled with words too unimportant to ever read. I threw away more weight than I attached to my television set. Multiplied by millions of households, this is a lot of waste. All of this paper and plastic and ink had to come from somewhere: Right out of the earth. It was converted from natural resources into waste products, some of them toxic. And now, they're all stewing in a landfill. (Well, some of them are hopefully being recycled. But a lot of this garbage is in the landfills of America.)
But it doesn't stop here.
Because I found that my converter box did not function with the old rabbit ear antenna that I have had for eons. Since I had just spent money on a converter box, I wanted it to work. So I went back to the store and bought a new set of rabbit ears that would work. This, too, came in a box, wrapped in plastic. (And I think it was made in China.) So my decision to convert my television set over to digital meant that I paid a Chinese corporation to exploit its workers, I generated several pounds of waste, and I subsidized the conversion of natural resources into garbage. Again, multiply this by millions of households.
Finally, two people I work with also converted to digital at the same time that I did. They, too, found the converter box to be irritating as hell. They could not get any signal at all on most channels. And the lag between when you press the channel button and when it finally decides to turn the damn channel was so annoying that both of them decided that they didn't want to do things that way. Both threw out their "old" television sets (less than 5 years old in both cases) and both bought new HD sets instead. One of them then signed up for cable, since she could not get any signal at all on most channels without it. This seemed like such a cavalier and thoughtless reaction to the use of resources that I instantly recognized it to be the typical American reaction to everything: Throw it away and get a new one. (I'm not being self righteous about this, either. It is, after all, the same reaction I had with my rabbit ears. It's just that my colleagues had more resources than I did, so they went for a whole new television set.)Both of the new sets were, you guessed it, made in China.
Since this is, in fact, such a typical American response, it occurred to me that this would be the reaction of hundreds of thousands of people, all across the country. What is going to happen to all those "useless" analogue television sets? What will it mean to the earth, to have so much plastic and metal and glass and toxic chemicals thrown into the environment? What will it mean to be taking the raw materials out of the earth to build thousands upon thousands more televisions? And what will happen the next time some format is changed, in yet another rush toward planned obsolescence? (It does happen all the time. How many VHS tapes have you thrown out, now that you can hardly find a VCR that plays them??? And how many DVDs will you throw out, once VCRs all play nothing but Blue Ray? What about when something else comes along?)
I don't have answers for all of these questions, but I am seriously concerned that no thought was put into them before the government simply mandated that everyone in the country convert over to digital or let their screens go dark. I am hoping that many people choose to finally just let the screen go dark. I would like to have the strength to do so myself. But... South Park.
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