Rural America's digital TV doldrums

by Mimi Pickering, Daily Yonder

Art Menius lives high on a hillside in rural Letcher County, Kentucky. When he learned in January 2008 of the upcoming transition to digital television he was one of the first to request a $40 coupon for a converter box to use with his indoor, “rabbit-ears” style antenna. The local Wal-Mart, the only retailer in town, didn't have converter boxes in stock yet, so Menius purchased one online for around $58 plus shipping costs.

“What nobody told me was that I would do all this, spend my own money, get it set up, and still lose half the channels I had," Menius said, "Now I’m hearing that I have to spend $150 or more for an outdoor antenna to get back the couple channels I had originally.”

Although the airwaves belong to the people, many rural Americans are finding that the transition to digital television, and thus the continued access to those free airwaves, will be increasingly expensive, complicated and perhaps even impossible.

Congress approved the mandatory transition to digital television broadcasts in 2005 in part to free up valuable broadcast spectrum for other purposes. Many are profiting from the DTV switch, especially broadcasters, cable and satellite providers, TV manufacturers and their retailers. Those most likely to have to pay for new equipment or services, or risk losing their television signals, are low-income households, seniors, disabled viewers and people of color.

This month in seven urban centers across the country, activists from the Media Action Grassroots Network are bringing community groups and local retailers together to help residents prepare for the June 12 DTV transition. Those advocates are also calling on local retailers to do their part for a socially responsible DTV transition; they are asking dealers to provide converter-boxes at no cost to consumers who redeem the $40 coupons the federal government is distributing.

But what's happening in rural areas, places like rural Letcher County, where a conversion box may not help?

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has funded a number of digital TV transition “assistance centers,” but nearly all of their support has gone to metropolitan areas with large media markets. So while many urban residents can find assistance, even in-home help hooking up converter boxes, rural communities and smaller towns are under-resourced and overlooked.

The NTIA program set aside funds for converter boxes, but not for antennas, an added cost for rural residents like Art Menius.

“To a lot of the folks who call us, I just say ‘Antenna, antenna, antenna,’” reports Mark Holt, Services Coordinator at KET: The Kentucky Network. “The digital signal is weaker than analog, so if the station you watch now has static or snow, the picture will likely disappear altogether when it goes digital. The indoor antenna with 'rabbit-ears' is just not going to work anymore for a whole lot of people.”

Holt added that the digital signal is more directional. “If you are living between, say, Louisville and Lexington and getting stations from both places, you will need an antenna with a rotator that you can turn when you want to change from one station to the other.” Such an antenna can cost $100 and up.

Although June 12 is the transition date -- when television stations will stop broadcasting in analog -- many rural communities have, in fact, already lost analog signals, with some unexpected results. NPR’s Howard Berkes reported on the rural community of Bergton on the Virginia/West Virginia line, which lost its sole television source for local news, weather and emergency information because the translator antenna that was delivering the signal from the closest television station was not converted to digital. Nationally, there are more than 4,000 licensed translators that push the television signal to thousands of rural communities. Unless these translators are upgraded, which can be costly, they won't transmit the new digital signal. No one knows how many communities will be affected. The Denver Post reported that as many as two of every five television translators won't work or will be turned off when the switch to digital takes place.

A recent Wall Street Journal story found that millions of Americans who have relied on free, over-the-air TV could lose one or more channels -- even if they bought a converter box AND an antenna. Investigating complaints of signal loss, the FCC discovered in late December that almost 11% of local TV stations across the country are using the digital conversion as an opportunity to change their coverage areas. Stations are focusing their broadcast signals on higher income suburbs, dropping coverage of poorer and more distant rural communities.

Haven’t we heard this before? Metropolitan newspapers continue to pull back from rural coverage and newspaper delivery. Most small town radio stations have given up expensive local news reporting to retransmit national satellite programming. And rural communities are the most likely places to be without Internet access or to be dependent on slow dial-up connections. For many in the American countryside local television has been their information lifeline.

Communication is a fundamental human right. Losing television access because of price or availability during the DTV transition won’t simply mean the loss of luxury entertainment. Rather it signifies the loss of access to basic information, news, cultural ties, and the opportunity to participate fully in the national and global conversation about our future.

The Obama administration and Congress have stepped up assistance for the DTV transition; now it's time to investigate and face the reality of what is happening in rural communities and to develop options and alternatives that keep the people connected to their airwaves.

Mimi Pickering directs the Appalshop Community Media Initiative in Whitesburg, KY.

article originally published at Daily Yonder.

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