As many observers have noted, the 2009 digital television (DTV) conversion was a “trainwreck,” a “debacle,” even a “clusterfuck.” But before it was any of these things, the DTV conversion was a neoliberal policy initiative, engineered to shift the financial and social costs of upgrading to digital broadcasting from the federal government to the private sphere. From early on policymakers conducted the DTV conversion as a for-profit enterprise, anticipating the multi-billion dollar windfall that the federal government would reap when it auctioned off the analog spectrum vacated by over-the-air broadcasters. Until these profits could be realized, policymakers kept the conversion’s costs in check by outsourcing as many aspects of the implementation of DTV as possible to private-sphere partners ranging from multinational corporations to faith-based and community initiatives.
The government's private-sphere partners supplied much of the capital and labor required to upgrade the nation’s television facilities and educate viewers about the measures these upgrades necessitated. Equally importantly, they functioned as relays by which the conversion’s architects transferred accountability for this initiative’s outcome downward, from the policymakers who initiated the DTV conversion to the private citizens who would be most impacted by it. The public education campaigns conducted by the government’s private sphere partners promoted DTV preparedness as a matter of civic duty, stressing that by upgrading to digital viewers were carrying out their obligation to help broadcasters expedite the reallocation of the nation’s electromagnetic spectrum to more important applications, including an integrated first responders’ network. They likewise implored citizens to regard it as their personal responsibility to see to it that no one in their local communities be left without television as a result of the conversion. Toward these ends, the federal government and its private-sphere partners launched a number of campaigns to promote DTV volunteerism. The Consumer Electronics Association, an industry lobbying organization, took the lead in this area, sponsoring programs such as the patronizingly-titled “Rabbit Ears Pioneers” contest, which offered prizes to baby boomers who helped members of their parents’ generation get ready for DTV, and a 2008 public service announcement (PSA) contest which invited people to submit their own DTV outreach videos to the Association’s YouTube channel.
To kick off this promotion, the CEA released this video, titled “DTV Convert Now! Contest.” Set to the band Whiskey Falls’ jingoistic anthem “We Are America” (which incidentally also saw action in April 2009 as “the official New York City Tea Party song”), the video features the band’s four members creepily loitering in the aisles of their local big box store and helping a succession of increasingly clueless shoppers navigate the digital conversion. While “DTV Convert Now! Contest” is noteworthy for its caricatures of the inept and appreciative “rabbit ears pioneers” who inexplicably turn to the members of a country rock-lite outfit for DTV tech support, it is this video’s place within a much larger project of responsibilizing citizens for the DTV conversion’s outcome that warrants further consideration. As this video and the contest it promoted indicate, this project was not limited to efforts to deputize citizens to “convert their moms” to digital (as another CEA-sponsored promotion put it), but also encompassed clumsy attempts at “crowdsourcing” DTV publicity and education. If any doubts remain regarding the consequences of these attempts to offload DTV education to private citizens, “DTV Convert Now! Contest” dispels them: early on in the video, a graphic reminds viewers that on February 17, 2009 analog broadcasting will cease in the U.S. As we now know, this deadline would not hold; with less than a week to go before this deadline, Congress approved the DTV Delay Act, citing inadequate consumer education as a major reason for postponing the conversion until later in the year.