Is the Conversion to Digital TV an Economic Stimulus Package in Disguise?

digital TV

Even though I don’t watch a lot of television I, like everyone else, have had to look into converting my TV to digital so I can continue to receive my local networks after February 2009. While I don’t watch much, I do like to be able to see the news or PBS every now and then. Other than that, I make no secret of my dislike for television. The conversion to DTV hasn’t made me feel any warmer toward the medium. In the process of looking into this digital transition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the conversion to DTV just might be an economic stimulus package in disguise.

Why do I think this? Because it’s a program that is designed to get people to spend money. Not only that, but it’s a program to get people to spend money unnecessarily. Oh, I understand the rationale behind the conversion to DTV. Free up channels for emergency purposes, better picture, more channels available in each market, etc. I get that. But I’ve been asking myself over and over lately is it really necessary, or is this just something trumped up to get us all to go out and buy new televisions and equipment when our old stuff was functioning just fine?

We have three choices when it comes to DTV, and I’ve looked into them all. The first is to keep your old set but get a converter box. This is the most cost effective option and the one I chose to pursue. I signed up for the government’s coupon program and got a coupon for $40 off a $60 (the most basic) converter box. But I still had to pay $20 out of pocket that I wouldn’t have spent at all if this conversion weren’t happening.

In addition to the box, we’ve all been told that we also need a digital or HD antenna. This is where the word “rip off” goes screaming through my mind. All the electronics stores have “HD Antennas,” ranging in price from $15 to over $100 (or more if you want a swanky, huge roof mount contraption that can get signals from three states away). However, I talked to a good friend who is in charge of the DTV conversion at my local TV station and he told me that any antenna will receive digital signals. Even the old huge antennas from the 1950’s will work. He says that he sees the same antennas for sale now in the stores that he saw ten years ago except now they’re packaged as HD. In most cases, he says, the older ones work better than the new ones. To test him, I dragged out my twenty year old antenna from the attic and hooked it up. Sure enough, digital TV appeared. Back to the store went the $40 “HD Antenna.” (Don’t get me started on the aesthetics of antennas. Didn’t we spend years doing everything we could to get rid of the rabbit ears and roof mount antennas and here we are, sticking them back up?)

The second option is to get cable or satellite. If you have either, you don’t need to do anything as the cable and satellite signals will arrive in your home pre-converted to DTV. So unless you want to watch your local channels when the cable is out, you don’t have to do anything. For many people, this is the cheapest option since they already have cable or satellite. But for those who don’t and choose to go this route, subscribing adds another expense to their monthly budget just to receive what they were getting for free. And you still won’t be able to watch anything if the cable goes out unless you buy a converter box or a digital-ready TV and get an antenna, driving up the costs further.

The third option is to buy a digital-ready TV with the converter already built in. This can get expensive, especially if you already have a TV that was working fine that you didn’t need to replace. And you’ll still need to buy an antenna if you don’t have one (or drag your old one out and dust it off).

For those of us who do our research, are careful consumers, and are relatively tech savvy, we can get out of this for about $20 (use the coupon to get the converter box and use an old antenna). You’ll spend a bit more if you didn’t get the coupon and don’t have an antenna lying around somewhere. What disturbs me is that there are others who will spend way more than necessary because they don’t know any better, or because they see this as a sanctioned opportunity to spend a ton of money on television equipment and upgraded cable services, all in the name of “need.”

It doesn’t help that the stores are full of misinformation. Whether it’s intentional so they can sell more, I’m not certain and I don’t want to accuse. But, if a store can sell you on a new TV or sign you up for cable instead of pitching the converter box, isn’t that in their interest? At the store I went to, the converter boxes were high up on an out of the way display rack at the back of the TV section. You’d have to know about them and really hunt for them in order to find one. It seems that some unethical stores and salespeople are going to take advantage of the uninformed.

As an example, I spent Saturday trawling the television aisle at a major electronics retailer and eavesdropping on some sales tactics. An older couple was asking what they would need to transition to DTV. The converter box option was never mentioned. The sales guy tried to sell them a new TV, an antenna, and a subscription to satellite, claiming that all three were necessary. They said they didn’t want to subscribe to satellite because they didn’t need all the channels and he told them they had no choice. Fortunately, they didn’t buy anything. I only hope they went home and did some more research.

Another couple was bemoaning the fact that now that they had a digital-ready TV, they still needed an antenna. The husband said to the wife how sad it was that they couldn’t use their old antenna. This as they perused the racks and selected a $100 “HD Antenna.” Another couple was asking about satellite service. The salesman told them that to get digital programming, they not only had to subscribe, but also pay extra for the HD package. Which, of course, isn’t true. They would only need the basic service to receive digital TV. The HD package is only necessary if they want to watch HD programming. Two different animals, but they didn’t know that. So off they went to sign up. I hope they at least have an HD-capable television or they’re really stuck. For most it’s the confusion, whether intentional or not, that will lead to excess spending.

The other end of this spectrum are those that see this as their once in a lifetime opportunity to do some sanctioned blowing of money. One couple bought a 52″ HD-ready plasma TV, subscribed to satellite service and got the HD package, and bought a $400 antenna. The husband said to the wife, “Well, since we have to do this, we might as well go all the way.” Total bill: $6,000 (plus a new monthly charge for satellite), financed on their newly-approved store credit card. Yikes. If this is what you want, fine, but just to blow money because you’ve been told to do something about transitioning to DTV seems a bit extreme to me. Plenty of others were carting out new TV’s, new antennas, and new satellite receivers, all in the name of the DTV transition. The government has spoken, they seem to feel, and it’s time to answer the spending call. Skip the cheap converter box and go whole hog!

It’s hard not to feel manipulated and angered by the whole process. First, there is the government telling us that this will happen whether we want it or not and that we “have to” do something about it. Urgently. In fact, we should have done it yesterday. We must get out and spend to get something that has always been free. Then there are the salespeople who try to sell you anything in the store and, in many cases, are no more informed than the average consumer. Some don’t even have any idea of what’s really required to make this transition. Then there’s the differing terminology. HDTV. DTV. High def. HD capable. HD ready. And on it goes. It’s no wonder that some people buy everything in sight just to be safe.

(As a side note, what happens to the discarded TV’s? The landfills are going to explode with perfectly serviceable but unwanted TV’s. Sure, some people will recycle and others like me will go on using their olds sets until they die. But many, many people will take the easy road and dump their old sets. While not purely a financial concern, it’s an environmental nightmare that I wonder if anyone considered when they came up with this brilliant plan.)

Of course, the net result from all of this is great for the economy. People spend more than they would have if television had remained as-is. They’re out dropping hundreds (in some cases, thousands) on televisions, converter boxes, and antennas. Some are also rushing to subscribe to cable and satellite. This has to be a shot in the arm for the economy, just as the rebate checks are intended to be (and I’m sure a lot of rebate checks are going to be spent on DTV equipment, so double score for the government). And that doesn’t count the additional government jobs that were created to oversee this transition, the advertising, and the administrative expenses that are required to make the transition. I’d love to see the projected spending for this entire transition, both consumer and government, but I was unable to find any numbers. Maybe when the dust settles we’ll know exactly how much this whole thing stimulated the economy. I can’t see it being insignificant. A stimulus package disguised as a digital transition. Someone really has us snowed.

Of course there is a fourth option and it’s one I’m seriously considering. Just pull the plug and forget it entirely. Declare that you won’t be manipulated by the government and unethical stores who see this as a chance to talk you into buying more stuff you don’t need. Find something else to do with your time. Get the news from the Internet and then go outside. Refuse to participate in this “economic stimulus” plan disguised as a necessary transition. Spend your money on something more productive, like a good hobby or book. Ask yourself if any of it is really necessary, or if this is your chance to engage in a TV free life.

Image courtesy of .koltregaskes

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12 Responses to Is the Conversion to Digital TV an Economic Stimulus Package in Disguise?

  1. Karen says:

    One thing that irritated me about the converter box coupons was that they have such a short time period. I think you have to use them within 60 days. I signed up for my coupons early, because I generally do everything early. But I didn’t know that when I did that, I’d get coupons that had to be used almost immediately. I don’t get it – people who sign up later will get coupons that they can use later – it’s not as if everyone has to buy a box before a certain time. So why the short time to use your coupons once you get them?

    I was planning on buying a converter box. Right now I have cable, but I might not in the future. But this isn’t a good time for me financially (my job is uncertain) and I decided I didn’t want to spend any money (even $20) for the next couple of months. By then, my coupons will be expired.

  2. henrik says:

    Well The switch to digital TV is simply technical progress. And a good one at that, DTV and esp. HDTV is significantly better (at least in my part of the world)

    You should actually be gratefull that the government is handling out those coupons, In my country we have to pay for ourselves

    Although I gladly do because I get my money worth.

  3. Miranda says:

    I agree that there seems to be some sanctioned “money blowing” going on. However, if you get a TV with a digital tuner (many TVs now), the antenna isn’t necessary. Most TVs have a built in tuner that will pick the local digital channels just fine. Of course, the antenna would add better quality and allow you to get channels from further away.

    Another interesting choice? Get a DVR. It can serve as a converter box and allow you to record shows in the bargain (and skip commercials). It costs more than a basic converter box ($150-$300 on average), but if you want to ditch the VCR for recording your shows it can be a good move.

  4. Rick Franics says:

    While the TV conversion may cause a lot of people to upgrade their TVs this change has been a long time in coming, so it doesn’t seem plausible to me that it’s an economic stimulus in disguise. It’s a very reasonable technical advancement, if there were no government regulation I suspect it would have happened a long time ago.

    I recently got a $50 converter box, so I spent $10 after the coupon. Using the same rabbit ears antenna the signal quality is now significantly better. I would have been willing to pay a onetime $50 for that improvement, so that $10 is a real deal.

    The downsides of the converter box are the following:
    #1 Our old VCR does not have a digital tuner so the converter box has to be set to the correct channel for the VCR to record correctly.
    #2 Yet another remote for the box.

  5. Cindy M says:

    Jennifer, I like your last paragraph. I’m irked over the whole business. I very reluctantly bought 2 el-cheapo converters with my 2 government coupons. I have 3 TVs with rabbit ears. To my dismay, when I tried to hook up the converters, they would not work; I’m thinking these 3 TVs are actually digital after all. I’m hanging on to the converters, thinking as a last resort that I might pick up an old TV at somebody’s garage sale this summer (I’ve always had good luck with used electronic stuff, not being all that fussy). Like you, I like PBS occasionally and want to watch local news sometimes but to tell the truth, when I do turn a set on, I’m asleep in no time anyway. Guess I can stick to watching DVDs and using my old VCR when I feel the need to watch a screen, that or catch what I can on my PC.

  6. Trent Hamm says:

    I’ve found that very few people seem to be affected at all by the conversion – and the only people that will be affected seem to be largely unaware of it. I told my brother – who lives in the middle of nowhere – about it and he seemed to not even get what I was talking about.

  7. My community has an authorized electronic recycling drop-off site at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

    I took a non-functional computer printer to the site today, and it was amazing to see the piles and piles of (old-fashioned ?) television sets that were in the dropoff area.

  8. Annie says:

    While I honestly really have no idea what HDTV/DTV, etc actually IS (or that DTV is taking over the world next year), all I know is that if I convert to anything from cable, it’s going to cost me more money and that’s not including the electricity bill to run all this stuff. HDTV uses up to 4 TIMES the amount of electricity that a regular TV does. No thanks!

    I have an older TV, but I’m still conflicted about getting rid of cable entirely. I do like to watch TV, but know I would accomplish much more if I didn’t have it at all.

  9. Jay Gatsby says:

    I have 3 TVs in my house – 2 19″ and 1 27″. My wife are rarely home, and when we are, spend more time on the computer than we do watching TV. I personally haven’t had cable TV since 1992. Running the numbers (assuming an average of $45/mo), I’ve saved approximately $12,000!

    While it’s true I’ve missed out on many aspects of popular culture (e.g., the Sopranos, Comedy Central shows, etc…) those shows are now available to me on Netflix through my $15/mo subscription.

    When you boil everything down, it’s cheaper to go with over-the-air digital television and a $15/mo Netflix subscription, than to subscribe to cable or satellite TV. I may hook up my old VCR or save shows to my 500GB hard drive for later playback (no TiVo for me — why pay for something like that?)

  10. Aaron says:

    This thing reeks of Lobbyist to me. It has the aroma of broadband companies forcing crap on the public. I am not a conspiratorial person usually, but I am pretty convinced that there is something brewing in the big broadband company culture that is really dangerous. I am hoping the with our suddenly democratic government, they will not only fail, but be exposed.

  11. Anonymous says:

    My pet theory is that this is a law bought and paid for by cable and satellite companies to finish saturating an 80 percent saturated market.

    To get the signal good, you need quite the antenna. I live only ten miles from the transmitters and I use a homebrew rig that looks like something from WW2. I have it indoors. Good thing I’m not a homeowner. Neighbours would end up thinking I’m part of the SETI project!

    It turns out that the transmissions will NOT be turned up once the analog is turned off. If you get bad reception now, chances are you’ll have lousy reception after 2/17/2009.

    Now, I am tech-savvy enough to design antenna systems. Most people aren’t and those without reception will be FORCED to get cable or satellite. That is the key. The cable and satellite companies want to kill on-air TV to get more money. All they needed was a new law to buy with lobbyist money.

  12. Kerry Rogers says:

    Actually, the conversion has saved my family money already. My dad lives in the country, somewhere between two big cities. We hooked up his converter boxes, he has invested 12.00 dollars in all three, and with his old antenna, has plenty of channels to choose from. He now has the option to drop the satellite service he has been using to get the basic channels. If you don’t want movies, sports packages, and all of the other junk, then by all means, I say the conversion is worth it. I stuck up and old junk CB antenna on the metal roof of my garage, and I pick up plenty of channels. With the addition of a $6.00 in line amplifier from e-bay, I have no problems getting more than enough channels, this set was set up for emergencies only….hurricanes to be exact…so that when the cable goes out, I can power the converter with a small inverter, and still be informed.

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