On the whole, the legislated obsolescence of analog television is a fine idea. Most Americans (about 92 million, or 85 percent of the viewing populace) subscribe to satellite or cable services anyway, while the remaining 15 percent – about 16 million people – are still watching over-the-air.

Abandoned frequencies will be earmarked for public safety or auctioned on the open market, perhaps for billions. Analog goes “off the air” in February 2009; by then, nonsubscribers should be able to acquire a $50 digital converter with a $40 subsidy from the federal government.

Or, consumers can buy a new digital television to capture the “breathtaking” viewing vistas available through digital and high-definition signals, as described to the Capitol News Service last week by Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters.

Given that average Americans watch four hours of television daily, say the Nielsen ratings, it’s possible many old sets will be trashed, not converted. (For the same reason television repairmen are scarce – it’s easier to buy new.)

So, what happens to all these junk televisions? It’s a good question federal, state and local governments need to be ready to answer. The situation is particularly interesting in Maine, which adopted new television recycling laws in July 2006.

Dumping televisions into landfills is now illegal in the Pine Tree State; instead, televisions with cathode ray tubes are “universal waste,” subject to disposal at the manufacturers’ expense. Though several states now prohibit television landfilling, this “take-back” program is shared by only one other state – Washington.

Once taken from the transfer station by an approved handler, the television makers become responsible for disposal. Some industry groups opposed this law, which had strong environmentalist support, because of television market growth and certain consumer disposal habits.

The average junked television is almost old enough to vote: 17, according to industry research. And now more than 125 television manufacturers distribute in the United States, 70 percent more than the mid-1980s. Federal studies say 285 million televisions are playing nationwide – about 2.8 per household.

With hundreds of millions of televisions being used, and maybe millions more cluttering basements and attics, the potential exists with this technology revolution for a disposal scenario that could redefine “Trash TV” forever.

This an important side effect to this otherwise progressive federal action. Emergency communication limitations have been exposed by disaster – like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – and the upcoming airwave auction, which has media and technology companies salivating, could be an economic and technological boon.

Yet the fiscal and environmental costs of perhaps dealing with millions of junked televisions must be addressed. For Maine, this could mean a stress test – that’s only 18 months away – of its infant mandated television recycling and take-back laws, and for local transfer stations as disposal points for universal wastes.

How this plays out promises to be must-see TV.


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