Feds Mix Signals on DTV Converter Box

If you think the federal government's got it all backward when it comes to the digital-TV transition, you're not entirely wrong.

That's not to say the FCC and Congress have botched the federally mandated switch from analog to digital broadcasting, though some in the broadcast community have certainly argued as much. But on one important detail—the converter boxes recommended for households with analog-only TV sets—some folks appear to be a bit, um, turned around.

Starting with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. While discussing the Commerce Dept.'s converter-box coupon program in a recent interview with C-SPAN, Adelstein explained that the converter box “takes the analog signal and converts it to digital so you don't have to buy a new television.”

Actually, it's the opposite. The boxes receive digital signals and convert them to analog for all those folks—several million—who still rely on over-the-air signals and only have analog TVs.

That an FCC commissioner intimately involved in the transition would get it wrong may sound curious, but Adelstein is not alone. In fact, he's in some pretty esteemed company.

Googling the offending phrase (to sticklers for accuracy, at least) turned up this from TV Guide's online answers to frequently asked DTV questions: “You can purchase and install your analog-to-digital converter anytime and begin watching digital TV now.”

Then there is the article “How to Apply for an Analog-to-Digital TV Converter Box Coupon,” from eHow.com, the site that tells you how to do “just about everything” (except, perhaps, how to correctly identify the digital-to-analog converter box).

But here's the kicker: These broadcast signal mixers can now claim to be following the law since Congress, in its wisdom, managed to codify it in last month's bill moving the analog-shutoff hard date from Feb. 17 to June 12. Section 3, d., includes a reference to “the analog-to-digital converter box program.”

The office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who co-authored the bill, had no comment on the gaffe, and a spokeswoman for the Energy & Commerce Committee was checking into it on the House side. But a Hill source said the bill likely would not be corrected in any case.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.