Federal Aid for Old Televisions?

Remember that old television in your basement? The one you bought when “Cheers” was the top sitcom? Well, don’t look now, but it might soon be eligible for federal aid to ensure that it works in the digital era.

The Department of Commerce is expected to soon issue rules on whether to subsidize converter boxes for spare televisions in households that subscribe to cable TV. Such federal support would come at a potential cost to taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars. This would be a mistake.

The controversy stems from the upcoming switchover of television broadcasts from the analog technology in use since the days of Milton Berle to new digital television technology. As a result, analog television sets will cease to pick up broadcast transmissions as of Feb. 19, 2009.

TV sets hooked up to cable or satellite services won’t be affected, since they don’t rely on over-the-air broadcast signals. However, other old sets will be unable to receive the new signals unless they are connected to a special converter box.

Estimates vary, but currently some 15 percent of U.S. households -- with about 45 million television sets -- do not have cable or satellite subscriptions and thus rely exclusively on over-the-air signals. In addition, some 28 million more sets are in households that do subscribe to cable or satellite service, but aren’t hooked up to the service.

Concerned that some consumers would not be able to obtain television signals after the 2009 analog cutoff, Congress in 2005 authorized up to $1.5 billion to subsidize the cost of converter boxes. In July 2006, the Commerce Department -- tasked with administering the program -- proposed that funding be limited to households without cable or satellite service. As specified by Congress, each eligible household would be eligible for up to two $40 coupons to put toward the purchase of converter boxes, which are expected to cost $50 to $75 in retail stores.

Commerce’s proposed rules, given the constraints set by Congress, were sensible. By limiting aid to non-cable households, support would be focused on households that rely on broadcast signals, rather than those for which broadcast signals are only a back up.

In Washington, however, being sensible rarely gets rewarded. So it wasn’t surprising that Commerce’s plan garnered criticism, from broadcasters, equipment manufacturers, and others arguing for larger subsidies.

Most significantly, last November, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., now chairman of the House Commerce Committee, and 19 other members of Congress sent a letter to the Commerce Department criticizing the proposed plan, saying it “disadvantages the poor, the elderly, minority groups, and those with multiple analog television sets in their home.”

Specifically referring to exclusion of cable households, the letter stated that the limitation would “unfairly disenfranchise consumers with perfectly good televisions,” who deserve a “government-backed plan to hold them harmless.”

This is the sort of thing that gives Washington a bad name. Are “those with multiple analog television sets in their home,” really a disadvantaged minority? And are they “disenfranchised”? This isn’t voting rights; it’s television, for Pete’s sake. There simply is no right to television, much less a right to a discount on a converter box on that third television in your basement.

Viewers have no more right to a particular TV technology than they did to vinyl records or Beta video recorders. (The congressionally-mandated cut-off date doesn’t change this. Rather than curtail any viewer rights, it merely ensures that broadcasters return their old frequencies as they move to digital signals, a trade agreed to by broadcasters.)

It makes little sense to subsidize converter boxes at all. It makes even less sense to subsidize converter boxes for households that subscribe to cable television. These households will not lose access to television programming when analog signals end. And while those extra televisions in the basement or kitchen not connected to cable will need a converter to operate after next year, that hardly justifies a $40 taxpayer-funded subsidy -- an amount which may exceed the value of the television itself.

The Commerce Department got the answer right in its draft proposal. It should tune out the static it has received since and decline to subsidize basement televisions.

James L. Gattuso is the Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation