The smell of free money

Scene opens in a typical American home. Time: early 2009. Husband and wife in living room with old-style TV set.

“Goody, goody, goody! Yahoo! We're getting a new TV set! We're getting a new TV set!” chimes George. He dances around the room with the Sunday newspaper advertisements in his hand as his wife looks on. Seldom has she seen him so excited.

“Come on, honey, let's go pick out our new TV set. We'll start at Best Buy. Then we'll go over to Circuit City and maybe even Fry's,” he almost shouts.

“Hold it, George,” she says. “What's all this about getting a new TV set? This old one is perfectly fine. With the cost of cable, we really can't afford a new one.”

George blurts out, “Haven't you heard?” He waves the newspaper in front of his wife. “Analog TV is being turned off at the end of this year, and everybody has to get a new TV set or set-top box.” He almost whispers the latter part.

“Just a minute, buster,” his wife replies. “We're not spending any money on a new television, HD or otherwise.”

Undaunted, George continues, “We don't have to spend much, dear. Thanks to Congress, everyone will get a $250 credit towards a new TV set (or a free set-top box). Because we have an older set, we're better off using the credit on a new TV set. With the recent price drops, we can get that new 57in HDTV model I've been looking at for less than $1500!”

It's here we leave our mixed-up couple to bring some clarity to this story.

First, Congress has yet to vote on giving anyone a free new set-top box (STB). Second, if you don't take what will be a free STB, there's no guarantee you'll get a cash credit towards a new TV set.

However, you can bet that once the politicians smell the money the spectrum is expected to generate, they'll tack on more self-promotional goodies than you could count in a lifetime.

The dust hasn't settled on this matter, and the Consumer Electronics Association will certainly demand that any legislation include provisions for voters — ahem, I mean viewers — to get a credit or cash towards the purchase of a new digital TV set. After all, these guys sure don't want 17 million old TV sets to have their lives extended by cheap STBs.

Instead, these set makers will argue that using the “free” money from the upcoming spectrum auction to help fund new TV sets will actually speed the digital transition. New televisions will display pristine HD images complete with surround sound; the cheap STBs will not.

Besides, no politician in his right mind will tell grandma that she has to settle for a bare-bones STB when, by adding a little cash, grandma can get a brand-new TV. And, that politician will be sure to remind grandma at election time (via the free airtime he cleverly included in the legislation) that grandma should vote for him. After all, this politician helped her get that new TV set.

Scene ends with garage door closing as our couple drives away. In the background, we hear, “We're getting a new TV set! We're getting a new TV set!”

Video: Fade to black.

Audio of deep male voice, “Remember, any government big enough to give you everything you need is big enough to take away everything you have.”

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