DTV day of action: it’s time for a socially responsible DTV transition

by Amalia Deloney and Jonathan Lawson, Media Action Grassroots Network

UPDATE: Read RTM's statement about the April 17 event in Seattle, and read the comments of local assistance providers.

The transition to digital TV is coming on June 12 – after Congress granted an unprepared population a final extension from the previous date on Feb. 17. The country has been slowly getting ready for this transition since Congress passed the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act back in 2005, paving the way for broadcasters to end their decades of analog television transmissions and transition to more efficient digital technology. The bill gave the FCC the authority to reclaim swathes of broadcast spectrum for public safety and new wireless broadband services.

The June 12 date means changes for over-the-air TV viewers in the Seattle area, who are promised more channels and clearer signals, but who may also need new equipment to continue receiving the complete available range of free TV signals. Recognizing that low-income viewers shouldn't be unfairly taxed just to keep watching free TV, the government set up a program to provide free $40 coupons for people to apply towards the purchase of a DTV Converter box. As long as $40 boxes are available, people should be able to have a no-cost conversion.

The government's plan, however, had a flaw. While $40 boxes are available in some parts of the country and on the Internet, many local electronics retailers have chosen exploitation of a captive audience over a sense of social responsibility –and are refusing to carry the low-cost boxes.

Digital Justice in Washington State

That's why, on Friday April 17th, local community organizations gathered at Seattle Housing Authority's Center Park facility to mark a National DTV Day of Action. The event was part of a nationwide effort, the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)’s Socially Responsible DTV Transition campaign. Across the country (San Antonio, Minneapolis, New Mexico, Philadelphia, NYC, San Francisco Bay Area, and rural Appalachia), MAG-Net partner organizations held similar events to help community members with the transition to DTV, and called upon local retailers to provide a “no-cost box” option for local consumers.

City Councilmembers Richard Conlin and Bruce Harrell, along with Mayor Nickels and the rest of the City Council, wrote letters to local electronics dealers last January, asking retailers to provide local customers with a no-cost box option. To date, few local retailers have answered the community's call for affordable box options. While Fred Meyer has offered $40 boxes as a special promotion, enabling customers with government coupons to take home boxes basically for free (excluding taxes), the community and its elected officials were rebuffed by Target, Radio Shack, Best Buy and other outlets. Conlin and Harrell will join community groups at Center Park on Friday, to discuss retailers' lack of response to their request, and public readiness for the DTV transition.

Seattle groups involved in Friday's event include local MAG-Net partner organizations Reclaim the Media, the Youth Media Institute, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, ARC of King County, the National Asian Pacific Council on Aging, and the Seattle Housing Authority, whose Center Park facility provides affordable living accommodations for physically or mentally challenged individuals and their caretakers.

Center Park is one of several locations around the city where the Seattle DTV Assistance Centers have provided workshops and walk-in DTV assistance to low-income residents, immigrants, elders and people with disabilities. Walk-in Centers are sponsored by the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center (4408 Delridge Way SW) and the Leadership Academy (425 SW 144th St, Burien). Reclaim the Media hosts workshops at a variety of locations and operates a local call-in hotline at 206.508.1277. As the June 12 DTV transition date comes closer, local assistance center operations will increase – visit seattledtv.com for details. The Seattle DTV Assistance Centers were organized in collaboration with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Communication is a fundamental human right!

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers.” Many media justice organizations recognize that the DTVtransition represents a major shift in the way news, information, and culture is transmitted and received. Our move from historic forms of communication such as broadcast and print to new digital models of communication raises questions about digital inclusion—and its relation to the DTV transition. Whether the DTV transition or broadband build-out, this digital expansion presents challenges to access and regulation that have the potential to either increase the pre-existing disenfranchisement of marginalized groups, or access and equity.

How we handle the DTV transition is a good indication of how we will handle other Digital Inclusion issues. The Digital TV transition has always been about access. It is about ensuring that every individual and every community (irrespective of circumstance) is able to access low cost, convenient technology. And, it’s about skills–whether using the Internet to apply for a $40 coupon, or hooking up a new converter box, we have to ensure that individuals have the ability to interact with relevant hardware and make it work for them.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey