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Volume 7, Number 1

Spring 2009

Digital Television, Convergence, and the Public: Another Digital Divide?


Jason Smith

George Mason University

Introducing DTV

    A primary goal of the digital television (DTV) transition for the government is to reclaim airwave space that broadcasters use to provide current analog television signals.  Due to the "virtual explosion" of wireless applications, there is a concern that future airwave needs will not be met (GAO 2005).  By switching to digital, broadcasters will be able to make better use of their allotted airwave space – where several digital channels can be transmitted in the same amount of space that one analog channel previously could.  This is expected to free up the crowded airwaves so that they could be used more for the public good.  Jeffery Hart (2004) coins the term "digitalism" to stand for the ideological belief in the superiority that digital technologies have over analog.  As such, viewers could expect better cultural programming, better quality in picture and sound of the program they are viewing, and the government using the extra airwave space for emergency services (such as police and fire services), even though only channels above 52 will be freed. 

    While it sounds like DTV is a marvelous solution to freeing up airwave space and providing the public with better programming, that is not quite the whole picture.  Originally slated to stop airing analog television signals on February 17, 2009, the transition has now been delayed until June 12, 2009 – due to the unpreparedness of both the government and the broadcasters to adequately prepare the public.  Napoli (2003) argues that in all the discussions that policy makers had leading up to the transition of DTV, issues of the public interest have fallen off their "radar screens." 

    In 1997, the Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters examined and reassessed how broadcast television could better contribute to American political and cultural life, recommending that commercial broadcasters should demonstrate a minimum commitment to public affairs programming – especially those which were produced locally and/or addressed local interest and concerns (Napoli 2003, 2001).  However, this emphasis on the public interest was placed to the side in the early 2000s when a more deregulatory philosophy towards broadcasters and television manufacturers was implemented (Napoli 2003). 

    The handling of the DTV transition can be compared to how it was handled in Britain.  Galperin (2004) notes how the introduction of DTV in Britain focused on a strategy that promoted market competition, reforms to the existing regimes of control, a confrontational and rapid implementation process, and a defense of public service broadcasting; as opposed to the United States which reinforced local oligopolies with fragmented implementation and a defense of commercial incumbents.  The promotion of market competition as a strategy for the switch to DTV in Britain was geared towards a path divergent of the Murdoch dominated analog pay-TV and the proliferation of satellite TV standards that were the products of a lack of checks in government oversight (Galperin 2004; Hart 2004).  The purpose here was to keep a balance between the public and commercial operators that threatened the public service which permeates British broadcasting.  Galperin notes further that the American transition to DTV reflects the existing industry arrangements, which were led by market based incumbents, and that policy makers refused to commit funds to expedite the process.

    The switch to DTV allows the broadcasters to transmit two or three channels on the same frequency that they could only previously transmit one analog signal on.  The triumph of the broadcasters in the DTV transition can be seen by the lost promise of using the newly freed airwave space for more public use.  While one of the reasons for going digital was for government/state/local agencies to use the freed airwave space for emergency services and other government functions which would serve the public, Congress only kept a small portion of that space and gave the rest to the broadcasters at no charge.  In a society where large companies dominate the means of communication (Croteau and Hoynes 2003) important questions to ask about the impact of television going digital is: What impact will this new technology have on the television media that we rely on for news and entertainment?  How will the convergence that is taking place already in various media be affected?  How will the general public handle this transition? 

Theoretical Application – Guiding the Way

    Technology, when looked at in its entirety, casts a wide net over society.  Marx saw the relationship between people and technology as an intimate affair, where in a capitalist society technology took on a paradoxical nature (Fischer 1982).  He viewed technology as a way to liberate the worker, but under a capitalist system it worked to reinforce existing power structures (Tushman and Nelson 1990).  While Marx argued that technology was a "neutral" element in which it is dependent on the social system that it is used in (Feenberg 1990), French sociologist Jacques Ellul proposed that this idea is out of date.  Throughout his book, The Technological Society, Ellul (1964) argues that technological development is not independent of the private sector or the state.  What he refers to as "technique" are the methods that have been developed through technological progress to reach a known end, where over time these processes have ended up dominating society.  That is to say, the methods that we use to solve problems have subsequently narrowed how we create solutions, focusing on the immediate outcome without taking into account future ramifications – much like the drive to implement the new DTV technology without being fully prepared for the transition.  Differing from Marx's view that technology is neutral and used by the individual/group, Ellul argues that the transition of technology to technique has actually enslaved us.  The role of technology in our everyday lives can be seen as a form of control; however, whether technology or its techniques are used by the human or uses the human is not the purpose of this paper.  The following is mentioned to point out the fact that technology, in all its advances and the importance we place upon it, can be a source of conflict within our society leading to forms of inequality.

Convergence of the Media

    Convergence could be seen as early as the 1920s when media companies started to form new "constellations of power" in which they developed an array of organizations which began to dominate communications in print, the screen, and the airwaves (Starr 2004).  While convergence is used by communications scholars to explain the changes that are occurring in news production, the concept can also become a social issue if we analyze the impact it has on society.  As companies become conglomerates and newer forms of technology are developed, the term convergence explains how media that were once separate and unconnected will shift more into a single computerized digital network (Neuman 1996).  In regard to technology, convergence instigates the development of new technology to the extent that the distinction between different kinds of media are no longer clearly defined (Dakroury 2005) and conglomerates invest heavily in developing relationships between various media holdings (Klinenberg and Benzecry 2005) for their own gains.  An example is given by Seiter (2003) who states that the connections between television and computer firms are proliferating as the Internet has become heavily promoted at the corporate level to search for ways to advertise it and develop new programming for it based off of popular mass media. 

    Discussing the production of news media, Lynne Cook (2005) states that as new technologies for television and layout designs for newspapers became available in the 1970s, the news took on more of a "scan-and-go" format which further increased throughout the 1980s and 90s.  The quality and depth of news stories that the public received from the media began to dwindle in the light of newer technological use and the variety of stories that is supposed to occur from it actually results in similar news stories (Davie and Lee 1993).  The impact of newer technologies and the combining of various media outlets have forced journalists to take on more tasks than ever before with the same amount of manpower (Smith et al. 2007) and to produce fast-paced news (Aviles et al. 2004) which leave little time to research and explain the context of the news stories they present to their audiences.  Gans (2003) explains this by stating that journalists are employed professionals that work mainly for commercial news media, and have become cogs in the machine of news production.  Technological advances that have occurred within the realm of news production have changed the way news is presented to the public and how journalists themselves have had to alter how they do their job in order to adapt to new technologies and the convergence of different media.

    The convergence of news media is also of concern to the public, because as Ellul argued, the techniques with which things are run will enslave the human.  "Cyber-skeptics" see digitization as a way in which culture industries (popular forms of entertainment) advance larger projects that threaten the "integrity of creative fields or the relative autonomy of artists and intellectuals" (Klinenberg and Benzecry 2005:14).  The goal then, is for local and diverse media outlets to offer substance rather than "scan-and-go" news.  Dakroury (2005) also states that media ownership in the age of convergence threatens the people's right to communicate.

Forgetting the Public

    If the development of digital media has been marked by consolidation and a concentration of ownership rather than openness (Klinenberg and Benzecry 2005), then what does the future of public television hold when it goes digital in 2009?  A report from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR 2008) states that broadcast TV is the primary news source for most Americans, and that those most dependent on it are of low-income, seniors, persons with disabilities, and non-English speakers.  Another report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO 2005) also noted that nonwhite and Hispanic households are more likely to rely on over-the-air TV than are white and non-Hispanic households.  For communities who rely on free broadcast TV for their news, entertainment, and information regarding local events, there is a serious potential that the digitization of television could lead to another digital divide that resembles one similar to the Internet.

    In regards to the Internet, Atwell called the digital divide a social problem where poor and minority families are less likely than other families to have access to computers or the Internet, "creating a technology gap between the ‘information haves' and 'information have-nots'"(Atwell 2001:252) –  particularly among Hispanics and non-Hispanics (Ono and Zavodny 2008).  The digital divide also aides in poorer regions falling further behind in economic growth when compared with the rest of the nation (Lentz and Oden 2001), since IT skills are acknowledged to be crucial to success in the workplace and school (Ono and  Zavodny 2008).

    The digital divide is important to note because it offers a warning of the inequalities which can follow technological advancements.  With the coming of DTV, Brinkley (1997) sees the digitization of television blurring the lines between television and the home computer.  Newer models of televisions will come with faster chips, more memory, better modems, and more expansive options – making televisions grow obsolete more quickly.  Already Microsoft has entered the cable television business and has pushed for the advance of DTV which would use computer monitors rather than traditional televisions, as well as integrating Internet access with television viewing (Seiter 2003).  While broadcast channels still might deliver free over the air programming, the products needed to view those programs would be continually updated – with the consumer absorbing the costs.  For lower-income groups this would be a difficult burden to bear.  A digital divide that might result from DTV could segment approximately 19% of the United States population that relies on free over-the-air television for receiving news and entertainment (GAO 2005).  This would create an even larger disparity between Atwell's "information haves" and "information have-nots."  For example, a Pew Research Center (2008) study found that a majority (56-68% respectively) of non-white, black, men and women over fifty, and income under $30,000 respondents regularly "watched the TV news yesterday" and that a majority of those respondents regularly watched local news.  If the DTV transition is supposed to affect those of low income, minority groups, and the elderly most (LCCR 2008), then a majority of those groups might become part of the "information have-nots" when their access to such information could become limited due to the digitalization of public television. 

    Rural and remote areas face the potential of losing their television signal upon the switch to digital as well, due to the limited range and blockage of digital transmissions by both natural (hills and mountains) and man-made (buildings and towers) obstacles.  Wilmington, North Carolina served as a "tester" location for the DTV transition in September 2008.  One issue that viewers faced in this area was the complete loss of service of over-the-air television when the station WECT (channel 6) went digital (FCC 2008) – this happened despite viewers installing DTV converter boxes for their television sets.  This poses a problem for the public who have been led to believe that all they needed to do to receive over-the-air transmission was to obtain a digital tuner or converter box.  What has been dismissed is that viewers can still use antennas to receive DTV transmissions.  The government, in planning the DTV transition, made the assumption that anyone wanting to receive over-the-air transmission already had a rooftop antenna, which ended up being a false assumption (Wolverton 2009), with perhaps only one percent of the public with such an antenna (Goodstadt 2009). 

    What is also unclear is the type of antennas which can be used to pick-up DTV transmissions.  AntennaWeb (2009), run by the Consumer Electronics Association, makes the distinction that the antenna that viewers use is based off both the location to and strength of the broadcast signal.  Yet the standard UHF antennas available on the marketplace are optimized at a higher frequency than channel 52, the highest frequency in use after the transition.  A whole new set of antennas optimized for the lower UHF frequencies has yet to be developed or marketed.

    While the government is trying to make this transition run as smoothly as possible for the American public through its access of information via the Internet and local meetings in various towns to discuss the DTV transition, as well as by offering discount coupons for households to purchase digital converter boxes for older televisions, there is still a lack of information that gets to particular publics within our society – in this case, the groups that have been mentioned already that are in danger of being most impacted.  And there is a problem even with the governmental web site advertising the coupon for the boxes, since the pictorial information shows only a traditional rabbit ear antenna, not the directional antenna mounted on a 30 foot pole used in making the engineering assumptions about the effectiveness of the boxes or how digital TV would affect the public at large. 

    Assessing how retail stores were preparing for the digital transition and informing their customers about it, U.S. PIRG (2008) found that those stores were largely uninformed and not adequately preparing customers for the transition to DTV. 

    Why would people confused?  Well, Figure 1is the illustration used by the offical governmental web site, even to conversion day, proclaming "It's easy."  Note the antenna shown, a simple indoor rabbit ears model, certainly not an outdoor antenna mounted on top of a 30 foot pole used as the basis for engineering scenarios about how far a digital signal would travel and how few people would experience any problems.   A very large number of people who relied on the illustration would have little or no reception with the digital conver box unless they were very lucky and were able to place the rabbit ears in a window.  The information that for good digital TV reception an outdoor antenna is usually and often needed is obscured by the "It's easy" graphic. 

Figure 1

Source: <>

    The PIRG report also found that most retailers tried to persuade customers to buy new and expensive televisions rather than explaining the availability of less expensive options.  Brandes (2007) also mentions the disinformation that satellite installers, who work for DirecTV and Dish Network, give clients about being able to receive over the air digital transmissions – telling the clients they would need to either contact their television station or offering what is on their truck as the only option for getting the channels in clearly.  The government  vouchers for the purchase of digital converter boxes for older television sets can greatly reduce the cost, although it seems that the easiest way to receive a voucher is to apply for one through the Internet.  But with the existence of a digital divide where Internet access is limited for particular groups, receiving these vouchers might not occur.  Hein (2009) reported that while over 40 million coupons have been requested, only 16 million have been redeemed; the demand for these vouchers has greatly exceeded what Congress had originally presupposed by allowing for a budget that only covered 33.5 million coupons (Kennard and Powell 2009).  No governmental aid was offered for a new antenna.

Solutions to the Predicament

    The coming of DTV is being brought to us by those that brought us its analog predecessors (Price 1998).  In regards to new media, Murray and Scott (2002) suggest looking at the mechanisms of control that already exists and to find ways that stimulate and/or steer those mechanisms toward meeting the public interest.  The information presented thus far offers a warning that the digitization of public television might lead to further convergence of news programming and might forget the marginalized public that uses it.  It is important then to find possible solutions to prevent this.

Opposing Convergence

    Lloyd and Napoli (2007) site that access to independent and diverse media is essential to our democracy, where the ability to learn about and debate local/state/national issues depends on exposure to news and discussion not controlled by one source.  For scholars and community groups seeking to measure diversity within the media, Lloyd and Napoli offer four measures to aid in evaluation:

  1. Determine media markets in a way that captures the diversity of sources available to both the general public and significant distinct "ethnic audiences."
  2. Count all "independent" media outlets that serve the local media market, including print, broadcast, cable, and Internet media; but include only those sources contributing locally produced news and public affairs.
  3. Measure the potential audience of each particular media source in the market.
  4. Measure the news workers for each media source in the market, with additional points given for gender and ethnic diversity.
    As broadcasters gain more outlets for their programming in the switch to DTV, there is an opportunity for publics to make better demands for locally produced news and entertainment.  If local public broadcasting stations are facing difficulties in affording the equipment to make the DTV transition then two possible solutions might be available.  Either local broadcasters appeal for government support to purchase the equipment to transmit digitally, or local broadcasters are allowed to air their material on a larger company's digital channel – although autonomy of the local station would be a requirement to allow for diversity.  Policy regarding media news and entertainment should take into account that large companies who own these broadcasting stations now have even more opportunities to voice what they see fit.  More regulation may be required of these companies to provide better cultural programming or to proceed with greater efforts to produce local area programming.  Taking an example of the British DTV transition, it is useful to recall how their government held a privileged role in the transition process for the British Broadcasting Corporation by helping them meet costs and offer programming in an increasingly competitive marketplace (Galperin 2004).

Remembering the Public

    If those in low-income, minority and elderly groups, and those living in rural areas are the ones most likely to be affected by the DTV transition, then efforts to make sure they know about this transition and what they can do to prepare for it are necessary.  It would be up to local community groups or larger public organizations to help make sure that the correct information about the DTV transmission and what is required of individuals to maintain their ability to view free public television are.


    Lentz and Oden (2001) state that access is not at the heart of the digital divide challenge.  While access is necessary, it is more important to know how technology is used.  The theoretical framework presented here sees technology being used as a way to reproduce inequality – where those with less are unable to acquire newer technologies, hindering their chances for more equitable opportunities.  With the transition to DTV still having yet to occur, it is impossible to say for sure what will happen when it does.  Since DTV technology is relatively new to the public, it is also too soon to tell how local communities might use digital transmissions for their own benefit.  The solutions offered here are limited, but hope to steer a direction towards a more public oriented media usage.


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