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TCA Press Tour: Television programs and digital conversion woes

January 7, 2009 |  1:40 pm

Ah, the new year:  A time for reflection, soul-searching and new beginnings.

It's also a time for bringing TV journalists, network executives, producers and actors together, like one big happy family, in hotel ballrooms day after day for news conferences about future TV programs.  Last January, which you might recall kicked off that wretched 2008, the Television Critics Assn. did not get to have its semi-annual shindig, and some of us were a little happy about that!  But this year is a whole different ball game: We are ecstatic to be at the Universal Hilton because it means WE STILL HAVE JOBS. 

Another reason we are pleased is that the Universal Hilton has undergone a wonderful renovation since the last time the TCA media tour was held there, and we approve! We especially are grateful for the Coffee Corner in the lobby, a place where espressos and all kinds of goodies await us day and night.

PBS kicked off the tour this morning with "The Electric Company" breakfast. Can we just say, that is one re-make we are excited about! (Are you listening, NBC?) It premieres Jan. 23. We also got a special treat with a visit from Ian McKellen, who discussed his star role in "King Lear," which premieres March 25.

Then, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger appeared  and although she was not very happy with the federal government, she was warm and articulate. She even answered questions, which is not to be taken for granted at the executive sessions.  (You know who you are!)

Kerger's beef with the feds is related to the upcoming Feb. 17 digital TV mandate and the waiting list for converter boxes. It turns out that the federal government has run out of money to help analog TV owners go digital by next month. I don't know about you, but the fact that the federal government has run out of money for anything was really shocking. (Idea: let's borrow the money from California, the state that produces the most TV shows. Oh, wait. No money there either.)

The federal $1.3-billion program to offset the cost of buying converter boxes has hit rock bottom, so now those of you who need financial assistance to make the change are being put on a waiting list. Apparently, there are thousands of people on this list. (The program had been issuing $40 discount coupons for the boxes, which can cost up to $70.)

Why is this upsetting Kerger? Because satellite and cable users are safe -- no need to convert anything -- but there are more than 70 million television sets in the U.S. that use an antenna and will be left with blank screens unless they have a digital converter box. In other words, PBS viewers, with no cable or satellite, and no disposable cash to spend on a box, will not be able to tune in.

"I was very disheartened that the federal government has run out of money," Kerger said. "To put [people] on a waiting list is inexcusable. We need to get those boxes connected to TV sets  at a time when people are making hard choices and closing their cable accounts because they can't afford to keep them. We need to make sure that every household is connected. Right now, we're at the edge."

But one thing about the federal government that makes Kerger's heart swell with joy is the fact that Barack Obama is two weeks away from becoming the 44th president. That's because Obama has expressed an interest in early childhood education and the investing in the arts, two of PBS' favorite topics.

With two young children living in the White House, the new administration is bound to care, for instance, that "Sesame Street" turns 40 this year.

Feliz Cumpleanos, Big Bird and the gang.

-- Maria Elena Fernandez

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