The Futurist: Darkness Falls on Missouri

“Despite efforts by the public and private sectors and ongoing coordination, we found that no comprehensive plan for the transition exists. This raises uncertainty, including whether consumers, particularly underserved and otherwise vulnerable populations, will have the information necessary to respond to the transition and to maintain their access to television programming.”

 - U.S. Government Accountability Office (Dec. 11, 2007)

Feb. 17, 2009 started out like any other day for Travis. He had been under siege for nearly a year, but had been unaware of it. Travis wasn’t an ignorant man. In fact, he was considered very well read — even if he hadn’t had the energy to pick up a book in a couple years.

Still, the bombardment by America’s most powerful corporate entities and by the United States government, all singularly focused on getting the attention of people like Travis, went all but unnoticed.

How could he have missed it? Marketing giants like Best Buy, Circuit City, K-Mart, Target and the all-powerful Wal-Mart had aimed every tool at their disposal straight at Travis and people like him, fueled by their massive, inflated media budgets. And those companies weren’t alone. TV networks let loose with more communication carpet-bombing, as did the government and any industry that had a product to sling.

The stakes were high for these marketers. Televisions all over the country — those boxes of electricity, tubes and lights that housed the unscrambled images and sounds beamed into the homes of millions, providing laughter, tears, information and escape – were about to go dark: It was the end of network television. For the first time since families began gathering to watch Ed Sullivan and those agonizingly long ads for Lipton Instant Tea that proudly exclaimed, “It puts you in an eating mood,” the shades would be drawn forever on their easy window to the world.

But Travis didn’t know this. He was always distracted at the end of the day. When he got home it took all his focus to just stay awake and sit with the kids in front of a sitcom. It was no wonder he never noticed the ads from retailers telling him to buy a new TV before the digital switch. He threw out the direct mail from Best Buy offering free vouchers for a digital converter. “What the hell is a digital converter?” he thought.

The one day a year he truly focused on TV was his annual Super Bowl party. But amidst his screaming friends and a cacophony of the world’s best ads, it was no surprise that while watching Miami lose to Atlanta, led by the well-rested early-paroled Michael Vick, he missed the message to switch to digital or be left with nothing but a black screen in which to see his own reflection.

Travis was not alone. One out of five Missourians still had analog TV. Most of them had no idea why they all went to static on that February day. One by one, millions of Americans turned on their TVs to see a screen filled with snow. It would be weeks before word-of-mouth spread to the uninformed. TV repairmen were inundated with calls. They tried helplessly to explain to a never-ending string of angry customers that they needed to buy new TVs. Or get cable or satellite. Or buy a converter. It was chaos.

A curious thing happened during that time, when nearly 15 million homes around the country were hit with an electric blizzard: People ventured outside, squinting their eyes in the natural light. They picked up that half-read book they’d been meaning to finish. They jogged. They went out to eat. They even fixed their storm drains.

In the end, Travis called his neighbors. He called a repairman. He called a friend who worked for Google Warner cable. He figured it out. He still wasn’t sure why the switch happened — he recalled something about police and emergency personnel using the old TV signals, but it sounded to him more like big business wanted everyone to upgrade their TV sets.

Within a few months of the February switch, the only measurable effects of the day millions of TVs went dark was a first-quarter earnings spike for the electronics retail industry and a sharp dip in the already decimated network ratings, still down from a year of writers-strike-induced reality TV. 

Jon Haber is director of innovations West for Initiative. (

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