Obama Reconsiders Digital TV Transition Date

by: Shelly Palmer

As I listened to President-elect Obama’s speech the other day, I was tickled that he chose this moment to promote my upcoming book, Get Digital: Reinventing yourself and your career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). Actually, he wasn’t promoting my book, he was articulating some of his thoughts about how digital infrastructure (among other things) is a central focus of his economic stimulus package and his vision of a 21st century economy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that he is seriously considering bowing to special interest (and political) pressure and delaying the February 17, 2009 switch-off of analog television — one of the fundamental building blocks of the technological future he envisions. On some level, a delay makes sense. He is facing the biggest economic crisis we’ve ever seen and there is a very real threat of a protracted war in the Middle East. This probably isn’t the time to take the risk of not being able to reach 8ish million antenna-only television households. On the other hand, there will never be a "good" time to force people to make a change. At this point, any date they pick will be arbitrary.

Exactly a year ago, I was speaking with an FCC staffer. I asked him, "Why did the FCC choose a date in the middle of sweeps for the transition." He asked me, and this is the honest truth, "What are sweeps?" I didn’t answer because I could not believe that anyone working at the FCC could ask that question. I just made a little joke about it and asked, "No, seriously, how did you guys pick 2/17/09?"

I swear what I am about to tell you is true. He said, "It was after the inauguration and before March Madness, so we figured it was a good date." As you know, the broadcast industry was successful in getting Nielsen to move sweeps to March for this year – you can’t make this stuff up!

As most of you know, I have been counting down the days to the digital transition on MediaBytes with Shelly Palmer, my daily video show. The reason is simple. The first day of all digital television is the first day that the old spectrum gets repurposed and, that date (whenever they decide to do it) will be the first day of the super-digital age. It will mark a historic turning point in tool-making and tool-using. It will also be the day that the United States can start to do something about the fact that we are ranked 15th worldwide in broadband penetration.

During the presidential campaign Barack Obama proved that he, and his staff, were digital wizards. Not only did he use the Web to raise more money than anyone has ever raised, but he used it to communicate his message across an extremely broad platform. His execution was spot on and his organization demonstrated an understanding of the medium that has not yet been equaled in the world of politics.

I don’t think we should let Obama’s re-consideration of the digital television transition date confuse the issue. Obama believes in the power of digital technology. And I think he understands that digital technology and digital skills are key components in rebuilding our economy. To quote the President-elect, "To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America … it means expanding broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world. And it means investing in the science, research, and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries, and entire new industries."

Despite the fact that two million jobs were lost in 2008, Obama believes three million new jobs can be created in the next few years. If we can find a way to build-out our digital infrastructure and re-train some of our TV-generation citizens, I think there will actually be more than that.

This year the socio-techno divide is at 35 years old. People above that age are TV-generation, people below that age are (for the most part) video-gamers and digital natives. Obama believes "we are still home to the most brilliant minds, the most creative entrepreneurs, and the most advanced technology and innovation that history has ever known." He understands that with digital education for baby boomers and enterprise tech training for kids, we will see thousands of new businesses and millions of new jobs emerge.

Yes, I’m concerned about the delay of the transition. And what about the people who purchased the spectrum at auction? If the government does decide to delay the transition, how will Verizon (NYSE:VZ), AT&T (NYSE:T) and the other auction bidders feel about the $30 Billion of spectrum that they will not be getting? That’s for another column. I am convinced that the President-elect understands how important the new digital economy is to the 21st century economy and I know he’s going to be a champion for innovation right out of the gate!