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Unnecessary Gift to Free TV Watchers


Congress votes $1.5 billion in subsidies

What can you say about a "deficit reduction act" that includes $1.5 billion in subsidies for people who watch broadcast television on analog sets?

"These people in Congress aren't serious," that's what.

As it passed in the Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney flying in from an undisclosed location in the Middle East to cast the tie-breaking vote, the bill would provide up to two $40 coupons to help in the purchase of a set-top converter box when analog television broadcasts end, now set for Feb. 17, 2009, in the bill. The House already passed it, but will have to vote again when it reconvenes in January, because of some changes the Senate made in unrelated sections.

The only reason that television gets into this act is that when the conversion to digital broadcasts is complete, the government expects to auction off the part of the spectrum now used by analog broadcast, an auction expected to raise billions of dollars.

So doesn't the money for the subsidy just come out of the auction proceeds? No, because however much the auction raises, there will be $1.5 billion less of it available actually to reduce the deficit. Or, this being Congress after all, more likely to be spent on something else. At least it could be spent on something more worthwhile.

An estimated 20 million American households still rely on broadcast analog, and no doubt for some of them it is because they're too poor to subscribe to cable or to buy a new television set any time in the next three years, and can't save up the $50 or $60 it would take to buy a converter in that time. Even if you believe that is a problem, is it really among the nation's highest priorities? After all, free television is neither a constitutional entitlement nor a necessity of life.

Also, we may not be done with subsidies yet. Besides the people who watch broadcast TV, there are almost 40 million households that have analog cable service. Either the cable companies would have to convert the signal for them - a provision allowing that was removed in conference committee - or they'll all need converters too.

Surely Congress could have found a better use for the money.

See Wick Rowland's response to this editorial in his January 1st article: Speak Out: Let Analog Sell-Off Benefit Public.

This column is reprinted courtesy of the Rocky Mountain News.

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