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March 27th, 2009 - Convert or Desert...?

As I noticed my neighbors bringing in a TV set from their van the other day, I got to thinking...
I wonder how this whole "Digital TV" switchover thing is going for people, and if it is going to create a tidal wave of junk TVs headed for the landfill.
Effectively, our household is biased, we don't watch TV. We don't seem to miss it. I don't understand how people can spend time in front of a TV set and still get the rest of the things in their lives done. 
We will watch a Minnesota Twins baseball game if one's on standard channels, but since they sold out to the cable channels a few years ago, "network" TV games are few and far between. We don't have cable, have never had cable, and probably never will, it's just not cost effective for what we're interested in.
I don't understand the digital TV switchover. It seems like they (who ever "they" are) are giving us something we never asked for. Yes, Europe's had Hi-Def TV for many years, but it's like not it's a knock-your-socks off improvement, (correct me if I'm wrong) and with the necessity to buy cable to properly view it, for us, what's the point, we don't like TV programs. 
The way I understand it is, if you buy the converter box you get to keep watching your non Hi-Def TV, with your signal still coming in through your crappy antennae, and the signal you are seeing is digital converted back to analog, which is crappier and more degraded than it is now. All for a one-time (as far as we know) fee of "$120 + a rebate, amount TBD."  Wow, that's, um... pointless. Plus a little more electricity to run the converter box thrown in, as icing on the cake.
We will watch DVDs occasionally, so I suppose it's worth keeping the TV for that, but it seems like at some point we would be better served by getting better computer monitors and using the computers to watch DVDs, download our video selections, or watch streaming vid if we have a fast enough connection, or pay a subscriber fee to record our baseball games, at least we don't have to get twenty extra channels just because we want baseball.
Hmmm, then we are still sending our old monitors to the landfill, unless we wait until they completely die. Dang.
It seems to me that this 'Digital Switchover' may be the last gasp for the networks, possibly even for cable TV. When people figure out that they can get the video stimulation they want from their computers; on demand programming without the extra crud, get downloadable media, and more control over that media, it just makes sense. Why have a dedicated appliance to do everything in your house. That would be just like buying a donut-maker just to make donuts! Have you ever noticed how many donut-makers there are at the thrift store?
So who are the people that would be the potential analog-converter box buyers again...?  
Seems like they would be basically poor people with no cable, that depend on TV for entertaining and educating their kids, learning cultural intricacies, getting their news and providing respite from a day of drudgery of a low-paying job. Can they afford $120 for a converter box...? Is it important enough for them to go into further into debt for? And if they say, why should I pay $120 for a converter box when I can get a new TV that is all Hi-Def and digital ready, I can't watch my old TV and I'll get all that mind-blowing high-quality video everyone tells me I must have for 'just a few hundred bucks more.' I'm going to debt anyway, maybe this is something my family needs and uses every day so what the hell, let's get rid of that old TV.

This permeates the crux of this post's flame up: what happens all those old sets that fall by the wayside?  Do you need a converter box for every set in the house that is not digital-ready?
If that is the case, I fear hundreds of thousands of TVs now in kitchens, bathrooms, workrooms, garages, etc. are going to be headed to the boneyard. That seems like it would be a strain to the growing global garbage pile that is already reaching Mephistopholian proportions. 
I've heard that appliance manufacturers are "stepping up and taking responsibility" for the junk electronics that come back to the recycling centers. Which is good. I think. Except what do they get out of it...? I have a hard time believing they are that big-hearted that they all just decided to pay millions to take back their old junk with out passing some cost on to the consumer.
People counter with, "Yeah, but they're recycling it!  Melting it all down to get the precious metals and stuff!" I would like to know more about how that works. How do they separate all the parts out of an old TV?  How much time and money is involved? Do they heat big piles of them up in the garbage-burner and skim off the tantalum? How much does that cost? How much air pollution does it make? Are they making us pay for a converter box that we have to have to keep watching TV so they can pay to recycle the old ones soon to be obsolete?  Soon the converter box will be in the landfill next to the old TV because no one will be buying non-Hi Def TVs... 
I don't know these things. I would like to know. It seems like we need to start looking further down the road soon before we run out of places to put our old junk.
Why does it seem like progress is so good at inventing something new and great, but it's always that it doesn't allow you to use any of the existing hardware or infrastructure to get it...?
Okay, taking a deep breath and slowly backing away from the soapbox. 
What's a soapbox again...?


Gordon Dietzman said...

I think you raise some good points. Here's my experience.

We don't have cable--we use rabbit ears antenna--and had only one analog TV. We got the converter box for $20 after the "free" $20 rebate (paid for by taxpayers--that's me, right?), but $120 sounds high. A quick online survey shows boxes at $40-50.

The digital signal is converted to analog through the box and drives the analog TV. The picture and sound is much better than the straight analog signal, with some limitations. For instance, we have less problems with "snow" but some pixelization occurs and there are sometimes problems with interference from airplanes flying overhead. The picture freezes, sometimes we lose both audio and picture for a couple seconds. Even someone walking into into the room will cause a problem, usually with the picture freezing for a couple of seconds. However, when it is working, which is 99% of the time, the picture and sound is much better than with receiving the analog straight over the air in our area--that may change depending upon location. Plus, there are more channels available in the Twin Cities. Not sure if that is good or bad, probably depends upon your outlook.

Our new HDTV is running off the rabbit ears and has most of the same issues. The picture is very, very good; sound is very good, and while we don't have pixelization problem anymore the picture still freezes when someone walks into the room or when an airplane flies overhead.

When we bought our laptop a year or so ago, we made sure it had a HDMI port so we could connect it easily to the HDTV when we got that--just some planning ahead. We can use that combination as an alternative monitor for watching streamed video, slide shows, or working on collaborative projects that would be difficult by simply grouping around a laptop monitor. By connecting a better set of speakers, we get streamed radio. I've used the combination to show my photos to groups. In short, we have a multi-use appliance combination that will reduce, at some point in the future, other individual appliances (fewer radios, monitors, digital projector, etc.).

We believe in using up electronics. We have a relatively new laptop, but our desktop is six years old. Our old analog TV and its converter box is mounted in front of our stationary bike--makes exercising much more enjoyable on those days when snow is blowing and getting outside. Otherwise it pretty much just sits there, unplugged so it doesn't use electricity through phantom circuits. Still, it is in use. Should last for years and years.

Our TV before that was a 20 year old set whose volume control was adjusted by sticking a knife into its innards. Probably not a very safe thing to do, but we certainly used it up. When we decided to junk it, it was recycled. You are right, however, that there is still a waste stream filled with electronic gear, hence our predisposition towards using up our electronics rather than recycling them just because it is old technology--then we recycle it. We do the same with our cars and other purchases.

I would guess that there will be a significant increase in perfectly good analog TVs being either thrown away (less preferable) or recycled (more preferable, but still not the best use). But also keep in mind that that scenario may not be as high as one would think. Cable and satellite penetration is very high across the nation and analog sets will continue to work with those setups.

I'm not sure how available non-digital TVs are, except as second hand sets, but I suspect no one is selling or manufacturing analog TVs anymore.

There are some classes of analog TVs that will be junked even though they are perfectly usable. For instance, people bought undercabinet TV for their kitchens to save counter space. Adding a converter box to such a TV will be tough--one will have to use either cabinet space or counter space for the converter box. I suspect that those sets will be replaced in large numbers.

The new HDTVs are largely, I believe, EnergyStar compliant when TURNED OFF--(Analog TVs traditionally used quite a bit of electricity even when turned off). I'd guess that HDTVs, when compared to a similar sized analog set, are more energy efficient. The problem is that most people buy larger HDTV sets to replace their old analog sets.


dignature said...

Wow! Excellent response Gordon, thanks for all of your input. There are always many sides to every issue...
Let's see, what else can I unplu...

buthidae said...

The state of the economy has lessened by millions the number of TVs being tossed immediately. People aren't willing to spend hundreds of $$ on a replacement TV when they can maintain the old one with a $20 converter box. But eventually, the TVs and the jillions of converter boxes will be dumped, or sent to China for recycling. Unfortunately, what gets sent to China always returns in the form of heavy-metal laden paint on plastic crap.

dignature said...

Finally, something the economic downturn is good for! I guess...
Of course, if people aren't buying TV's, China is probably not buying recycling to make them and other cheap plastic crap.
I overheard a conversation at the MPCA (MN Pollution Control Agency) that had been running a trial program for the "higher number" recyclables at state agencies and since the downturn in consumer spending, China's demand for recycled plastics and metals has plummeted. No one wants to support any programs except the simplest and cheapest recycling lines unless they are already in a "single-stream" system (where all the individual materials are sorted and cleaned at or near the source) which Minnesota's is not. Sorry, not "cost effective" to reduce the junk in your future. Guess we'll either have to consume less, (blasphemer!) reduce unrecyclable packaging, (bor-ing, blasphemer!) or build the next Apollo Mission out of crushed TV's, 80's toys, and plastic bags and be ready to leave it on th moon (now you're talking.)