Federal digital TV conversion program more frustrating than helpful

Published Thursday April 30, 2009, Omaha World-Herald
Midlands Voices:
Federal digital TV conversion program more frustrating than helpful


The writer is a professor and director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication. He teaches media management and FCC regulation.

Following weeks of adjustments to my digital television converter box and two antennas, I have more questions than answers about the federal government’s TV Converter Box Coupon Program (online at, which offered $40 subsidies to upgrade analog sets to receive digital signals.

There is no doubt that this option offered people an inexpensive solution to the latest impending June 12 deadline for all analog signals to go dark. And a good-quality antenna with good positioning will compensate for some of the shortcomings. Still, it is clearly not the best way to experience the media digital revolution.

I was frustrated by inconsistent signal quality and the fact that a converter box does only what it offers — conversion, and not a true digital experience. It allows you to keep using your now outdated sets, but it falls short of helping us to understand why digital TV is worth the trouble. Finally, a converter box does not address the need for some of us to replace portable, battery-powered sets that are so valuable during Midwestern storms.

Undeterred, I went looking for a better solution and found it.

If you happen to have an Apple computer, you are most of the way toward achieving HDTV nirvana. I purchased the Elgato EyeTV hybrid tuner for Mac (PC users can find similar tuners), which plugs into the USB port of a laptop. The other end goes right into an antenna plug. This ran $149 at, and I found a RCA compact indoor antenna at my local drug store for about $11. The results were astounding.

From the exact same location in midtown that the converter so disappointed me, I immediately began receiving true high-definition quality video. I already had a nice computer sound system, so my home theater was complete.

Beyond enjoying digital television signals, the tuner also turned a laptop into a digital video recorder, which of course does not happen with converter boxes. The DVR acts much like a TiVo, including the ability to pause live television. An added bonus is a picture-in-picture feature that allows viewers to toggle between recordings and live TV.

In the event of a storm, assuming the television station signals can withstand it, I have a few hours of battery power to allow me to watch television weathercasters. There are, of course, other developments on this front.

Cellular telephones are rapidly becoming able to receive television signals, and it is likely that local stations will jump on the bandwagon in the near future. In fact, mobile media may come to replace much of what we think of as mass media today.

While the government converter box coupon program may have been politically expedient, I think it risks leading viewers down a dirt path that threatens to confuse people about all that is possible in the coming digital age.

We seem locked in a mind-set that views television as it was five or even 50 years ago. In an age when people are already viewing their favorite shows on and other sites, it is clear that the computer is the device that rules the digital age.

It remains to be seen what happens after the June 12 deadline passes. Once we all find solutions to the shift, maybe we can look ahead to the many possibilities.

Once we accept the idea that going digital means we are making a fundamental media shift away from a limited number of choices and toward nearly unlimited choices spread across the planet, then we begin to see how the transition will keep over-the-air broadcasters in the game but not guarantee success.

In a marketplace that includes user-created YouTube videos, independent media productions and low-cost barriers to entry, professional broadcasters more than ever must produce great content that people want to trade for their valuable time.

In this digital world, Omaha broadcasters and those in more than 200 media markets across the United States will be pushed to be local, innovative, creative, entertaining and talented. This has to be good for those of us watching.