Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bread and Circuses

As we all know, television signals are supposed to cease analog transmission and go to digital signals only beginning February 17. Of course, knowing that and doing something about it are two different things; the Manning household has been weighing the "buy a new TV/buy the converter box" option just long enough to miss the rebate program, which has now run out of funds.

But Obama's people are on it:

Echoing concerns from consumer groups, Mr. Podesta said that the Obama transition staff has found major difficulties in the transition, which was authorized by Congress in 2005. On Feb. 17, stations are scheduled to cease their analog transmissions and broadcast only in digital form, requiring consumers without a digital-ready TV who rely on over-the-air signals to install converter boxes.

Major broadcasters, including ABC and NBC, have signaled that they support a delay. In a statement, NBC called the administration’s move “prudent and well-considered.” CBS said in a statement it was open to the suggestion.

Earlier this week the president of PBS, Paula Kerger, “said she’s especially concerned that children in less-affluent homes that rely on free television might lose access to PBS educational shows for kids,” including “Sesame Street,” the Associated Press reported.

Millions of television viewers would be affected by the switch. In December, Nielsen Media Research estimated that 7.8 million households, representing 6.8 percent of homes with television, have not upgraded any of their television sets for the transition. Those homes would be unable to receive any TV signals after the switch. Subscribers to cable or satellite television will not be affected by the transition.

The administration’s statement will put new pressure on Congress to delay the end of analog broadcasting. The move comes as the government’s $1.3 billion coupon program to subsidize the cost of converter boxes has run out of funds, placing more than one million requests for coupons on a waiting list.
Now, I was mostly joking about the rebate coupon thing--we really ought to buy a new TV, as ours is about 15 years old and has had some interesting sound issues that might mean we'll only squeeze another year or so out of it, anyway. But this is a serious question: why is it the job of the federal government to subsidize television viewing?

Is television viewing a necessity? Do TVs get a mention in the Bill of Rights, or anywhere else in the Constitution? Does the government have to step in when technology is upgraded to make sure people can still tune in--yes, even to PBS?

We use the phrase "bread and circuses" to refer to a situation in which people stop caring about their duties toward a society, and instead chose leaders who promise them cheap food and entertainment. The quote comes from Roman author Juvenal, who wrote:
… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
In her novel about St. Luke titled Dear and Glorious Physician, author Taylor Caldwell wrote something to the effect that any resemblance between modern-day America and decadent Ancient Rome was purely historical. Watching the newly-elected President's transition team rush to assure American voters that whatever else happens, they'll still have access to their favorite TV shows, I can't help but think the good lady was on to something.


Anonymous said...

The 1.3B was raised by selling the rights to the bandwidth currently used by the analog stations.

Red Cardigan said...


Does it make it the federal government's duty to make sure people have TV access?

JimmyV said...

Right on, Red!

It's good to hear that we aren't the only ones waiting until the last minute because TV isn't important. We've decided to go the new TV route so we figure prices will drop radically around the switch, if it ever arrives.

Seriously, cancelling cable is probably the best decision I've made since getting married. It forces me to do important things like laundry and playing with kids. As a bonus, it makes my father and father-in-law totally uncomfortable in my house. It's like my own sociology experiment.

Obviously, the government has no business subsidizing TV. 1.3B would be better spent paying down the national debt.

Maggie said...

Of course TV viewing isn't a right. But, how on Earth would we poor people of the populace have access to administration propaganda if we didn't have televisions? (ie, a certain someone's 30-minute campaign infomercial a few months ago...) It's not like we can be expected to read newspapers or (gasp) books to learn things.

And of course our children need to watch Sesame Street. I mean, what kind of mother seriously would rather have her children read books or play outside than spend an hour with Big Bird and friends? Heartless.

(note- I loved Sesame Street as a kid, and I think it's great... but reading with parents is far superior. If we're concerned about children's learning, why not promote family literacy, not a TV show? hmm?)

Anonymous said...

Probably (just guessing) federal government is involved because of FCC regulations affecting a large percentage of the citizenry. And, (guessing again), whoever sponsors Sesame Street (federal subsidies and may be related to HeadStart programs?) may be concerned with providing this 'educational' programming for their clientele--our fellow low-income citizens.

Hasn't TV viewing on major networks decreased in last few years? Was surprised at the initial governmental support of effort for digitalization of TV signals. Though, have to admit to some unease at current announcement, and rebuttal (or differing opinions) offered by organizations opposing deadline postponement due to prior advertising campaign costs, company business decisions based on prior Feb. deadline, and reliability of government-set deadlines e.g. 'what will the people think' next time a deadline is issued by the feds.

Yes, one son (the one that his parents had oodles of time to spend with reading and selecting library books) grew up not knowing about Sat. morning cartoons, or any other TV shows, but on the other hand, despite attempts to keep prediliction with computer games at a distance until age 15, has developed a penchant, and obsession.

Ellyn said...

I could never quite get into Sesame Street...and I still wonder if it is so helpful, why do we still have such a problem with a significant segment of the population needing 'educational' stuff piped into homes with parents unable to provide an environment conducive to learning.

How did civilization advance without television? Hmmm...

Melanie B said...

The great thing about books is that they don't need a converter box. Methinks those poor benighted children in "less-affluent homes" might be better off if they were forced to do something other than watching the electronic babysitter.

Milehimama said...

I don't think television viewing is a right. However, the government has passed an arbitrary technology rule which will cause people's possessions - their tvs - to stop working, through no fault of their own.

I don't think it's less affluent kids who are affected - most kids I know (yes, even on the free lunch program, foodstamps, etc.) have a newer TV than we do in their home! I think it's primarlily older people and "slow adapters". People who still have their console sets from 30 years ago.

There is an economic aspect as well. A great amount of revenue is generated from "eyeballs on the screen" (Nielsen ratings) and entire industries derive their revenue from TV. And let's not forget how hard the broadcasting companies must be lobbying to make sure not one person will miss one moment of their network!

I do have a dog in the fight, so to speak. I work from home writing recaps of TV episodes.

Lindsay said...

I've have been mulling over this post. We do not even have a tv, and I do consider it unnecessary for life and really not the government's responsibility.

However, I was reading recently about Constantine and the Christian (or tolerant of Christianity) Roman emperors, and even those claiming to be Christians would not stop providing entertainment via the Colosseum because it kept the general populace enteratined and from causing trouble.

And, I couldn't give you any other concrete examples, though I seem to recall having read similar things about other places and times.

So, it doesn't seem to be anything new for government (whether it be a monarch or otherwise) to provide entertainment as a means of keeping peace.

The Roman analogy seems especially poignant to me as I feel that our nation's obsession with entertainment personalities and reality television and watching people self destruct is very much like the Romans' love of the Colosseum.

Milehimama said...

Television is also a pretty indispensible way of alerting the public. I'm thinking of Ike, when there were maps and visuals with crucial info that radio wouldn't have been able to convey.