When Mitchell Szczepanczyk started talking about digital TV, people weren’t inclined to listen. At a local roundtable for left-leaning publishers in May of 2007 he warned that the conversion from analog to digital slated for early 2009 could be a disaster. But 2009 was a long way off, and “the issue seemed esoteric,” he remembers. The single-minded Szczepanczyk, with his buttoned-down, computer-programmer looks (his colleague Steve Macek calls him “somewhat nerdy”), registered as an oddball or zealot.

Signed into law in late 2005, the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act called for television broadcasters to cease all analog transmissions by February 17, 2009. The scale of the transition would be massive—roughly 21 million households still received analog-only TV, and preparing them for the switch was going to require billions of dollars’ worth of outreach, advertising, and logistical support. But there were sound technological reasons for the change: digital signals are many times more efficient than their analog counterparts, the conversion would allow for more channels and generally better picture quality; and the freed-up analog broadcasting spectrum could be used to increase broadband Internet access and improve emergency communications.

A few weeks ago, with the conversion date looming, news of the trouble it might cause began to surface: an estimated six million households remained unprepared for the switch. Digital TV became such a hot topic even Barack Obama weighed in, urging Congress to delay the conversion. Szczepanczyk, who for the past two years has been talking nonstop about DTV—on the radio, on a blog (dtvredalert.org), and at FCC hearings and community forums—finally found people were paying attention. An op-ed he wrote with Macek, who’s a media studies professor at North Central College in Naperville, ran nationally in January in dozens of daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Antonio Express-News, and Madison’s Capital Times; the Chicago Media Action Web site, which he helps run, got unprecedented traffic; and his cell phone—he’d posted his number on the site—started ringing off the hook. For Szczepanczyk, who’s spent much of the past decade struggling to get people to care about “esoteric” media issues—from the FCC’s media-ownership policies to funding for public-access broadcasters—digital TV was proving the breakthrough. “This has been the oasis in the desert,” he says.

Steve Macek says leftists have “tended to dismiss the DTV issue as a kind of pseudo problem because they tended to be antitelevision to begin with.” Even Szczepanczyk says, “TV is full of crap.” But he allows that it’s also a necessity. “My mother doesn’t have a computer, she doesn’t access the Internet. She finds out about the world from television and reading thenewspaper.”

Szczepanczyk’s awakening as a media activist came while he was watching TV. It was 1992, and he’d just graduated from high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was raised by Polish-immigrant parents. “This TV show talked about two facts about the media that I’d never heard before,” he says. “One was increased concentration of ownership—fewer companies owning more and more media properties. And the second was that this was going to have a huge impact on what people see or don’t see and how points of view are presented or dismissed or ignored. That was the biggest revelation of my life.”

In 1996, he moved here to study linguistics as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. This was the subject he planned to devote his career to—”teaching, research, the whole professorial thing”—but he failed his qualifying exams for the doctoral program. He ended up in software development, working for a company in Highland Park, but he remains interested in linguistics—a section on his Web site (szcz.org) is devoted to “Fun With Language,” and invites visitors to try out his pioneering “subanagram generator.” And he became increasingly involved in media issues and political activism.

He began filing stories on the Web site of Chicago Indymedia—which describes itself as a grassroots “collective of independent media organizations”—reporting on under-the-radar protests such as a tiny 2003 rally in Tribune Plaza against the FCC’s proposed media-ownership rules. He got involved with the monthly public access series Chicago Independent Television—which covers local protests, strikes, and such odd events as the December 2007 pro-Dennis Kucinich holiday sing-along outside the Art Institute—contributing video and production work.

And he cofounded Chicago Media Action, whose activities have ranged from supporting Chicago Access Network Television during its 2004 funding crisis to conducting an in-depth analysis of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight (the not-especially shocking conclusion was that the show caters to “elite” viewers). He also started a weekly current-affairs radio talk show called The Ministry of Truth on the University of Chicago’s WHPK, which covers everything from media reform in southeast Asia to the militarization of space.

While organizing for an FCC media-ownership hearing in the summer of 2007, Mitchell met his fiancee, Bree Hayden. They were introduced at a meeting of a group called Fight Big Media. “At a subsequent meeting,” Szczepanczyk says, “there was just the two of us. I thought to myself, am I on a date?” They plan to marry in September, possibly on the second anniversary of the FCC hearing.

That hearing also marked Szczepanczyk’s national TV debut—as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. A game-show fanatic (he hopes to write a book about the 1950s quiz show scandals), Szczepanczyk played Quiz Bowl extensively at the University of Michigan, and he occasionally writes and edits trivia questions for National Academic Quiz Tournaments. He trained extensively for Millionaire, going so far as to donate blood as an exercise in conquering his fears. He passed the $8,000 level on the show, but at the cost of all his lifelines, and when he got a question he couldn’t answer about the ABC drama Brothers and Sisters he walked away with his winnings. The day the show aired he was at the FCC hearing in Chicago testifying against big media. “‘Today, I made my national television debut’—those were the first words I said before the FCC,” Szczepanczyk says.

Szczepanczyk, who lives in Lincoln Square, is a cable subscriber, so he won’t personally be affected by the switch to all-digital, but it matters to him “who calls the shots”; in this case, he says, it’s the commercial broadcast industry, particularly its lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters. In his cheekier moments, he refers to them as the National Association of Bastards.

The world is going digital—a half-dozen European countries have already made the switch. But the transition has been implemented much more haphazardly here than in places like Great Britain, which is rolling the conversion out over several years, going region by region—”almost door-to-door,” says Szczepanczyk. In the U.S., Szczepanczyk says, the DTV transition has been designed primarily to the advantage of broadcasters—he says digital signals are valued at five to seven times as much as analog. Szczepanczyk thinks the liberated broadcast spectrum could be used to “create whole new communities of channels, large and small,” and he points to England, where publicly funded broadcasting is far more extensive than it is here. Instead, plans for the spectrum have focused on its commercial potential; much of it has already been auctioned off to corporate giants, like AT&T and Verizon, that want to expand their wireless capability. Verizon plans to roll out a 4G (fourth-generation) super-high-speed broadband service as soon as its $9.36 billion portion of the spectrum—the FCC calls it “beachfront property”—becomes available.

“People had no input regarding how this was going to be done, when it was going to be done, or who should benefit,” he says. Even FCC commissioner Michael Copps has admitted the conversion wasn’t thought through. “We never really dug deep enough to understand all the consequences,” Copps said. “We didn’t have a well thought out and coherent and coordinated plan to ease the transition.” As a result, the transition threatened to leave millions of TV viewers who still use rabbit ears in the dark.

In late January Congress delayed the conversion until June 12. Even the National Association of Broadcasters, which for years had been aggressively pushing for the change, endorsed the postponement, citing problems with the government’s voucher program. To help consumers pay for digital converter boxes, which run about $60 each, the government has offered up to two vouchers to any household that asks; but each voucher has a face value of $40, and only one voucher can be redeemed per box. Furthermore, the fund underwriting these vouchers temporarily ran out of money in early January, necessitating a waiting list for converter-box vouchers that grew to some four million people and has yet to be cleared.

Another rising concern has been with users who get their boxes and still can’t watch TV. Digital signals are easily interfered with—by such things as trees, mountains, and tall buildings—and viewers who have hooked their converter boxes to indoor antennae, especially in rural and outlying areas, have reported patches of digital distortion (think scratched DVDs), or even a total loss of the picture (an abrupt shift from excellent to nonexistent reception known as the “digital cliff”). Hawaii, which made the switch on January 15, is a place where digital reception turned out to be particularly tricky (“Apparently the digital signal does not bend well in our valleys and canyons,” reads an e-mail posted at dtvreadalert.org), but problems have been reported just about everywhere—from Manhattan to Las Vegas to Salem, Oregon. Many TV viewers are now being directed to purchase expensive outdoor antennae.

“Digital media do not degrade gracefully,” Szczepanczyk says. DTV reception is “either fantastic or it’s garbage—there’s very little in between.” Shermaze Ingram, a spokesperson for the NAB, concedes that viewers with older antennae and in rural areas may lose some reception, but she maintains the “vast majority of consumers surveyed have reported receiving far superior pictures and sound quality in the digital environment,” and predicts that “most stations will actually pick up additional viewers, rather than lose viewers.”

Adding to the general confusion, 421 stations across the country opted not to wait for the new June 12 deadline; with the FCC’s permission, on February 17 they ended their analog broadcasts anyway, joining another 220 stations that had switched even earlier. Ingram says these stations—in all, about a third of the nation’s TV stations—had “aggressively intensified” their consumer education efforts and were confident that their viewers were ready for the switch. Szczepanczyk counters that station managers who’d already sunk millions of dollars’ worth of ad time into publicizing the original conversion simply wanted to put it behind them. “I’ve talked to station managers, and they’ve found this to be nothing less than a humongous annoyance,” he says.

What Obama calls “our most vulnerable communities”—the poor, rural, elderly, and non-English-speaking populations who lack information, resources, and technical know-how—will be hardest hit by the conversion. A recent Nielsen report estimated that 230,000 households in Chicago alone aren’t digital ready. The NAB claims such numbers are inflated, arguing that many people simply haven’t plugged their converter boxes in yet.

Szczepanczyk has backed off the doomsday rhetoric of some of his early essays, published on liberal blogs like ZNet, that raised the specter of “long lines and street riots and looting and other images of unrest.” Similarly dire predictions were commonplace leading up to Y2K, and virtually none of those horrors materialized. But Szczepanczyk predicts a tidal wave of anger and frustration when these TVs go suddenly blank. “You could see a lot of people get very angry, be very quickly involved, and have a lot of pointed questions,” he says. “And they’re going to want serious answers.”

Just about no one monitoring the DTV conversion expected it to go smoothly, but many observers were ready to get on with it and live with the turmoil while it lasted. Last month’s delay triggered an onslaught of exasperated comments on the Web. “This country has had at least a year to prepare for this and as usual there are crybabies that hold out till the last minute and then they whine and whine because they’re not ready. Screw them!” said a poster at adweek.com. “The bottom line is that this is never going to go down without people being left out in the lurch,” said another. “They should have just pulled the trigger on it this month and got it over with.” The Sun-Times ran an op-ed by James Lakely, managing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Infotech & Telecom News, who said, “Proponents of delay seem to operate under the fantasy that the switch can take place without a single little old lady missing a minute of Oprah.”

Szczepanczyk has a different view. To him, the DTV conversion remains a perfect opportunity to focus the public’s attention on the flaws of media policy in general. “What’s hopeful about this digital conversion, the biggest silver lining I can see, is that this is not the kind of thing you’re going to be able to ignore,” he says. “People are talking about this, and they’re interested in not only media but also the issues surrounding media—the policy, the politics, and the political economy regarding media in the U.S. Where we’ve had popular victories on behalf of the public regarding media issues, there’s always been a connection to public awareness—the more people know about it, the more people get angry, the more people want to get involved.”

Szczepanczyk cites a 2002 train derailment that spilled 250,000 gallons of toxic ammonia in Minot, North Dakota—when authorities tried to access the city’s emergency alert system, they found out that all six of the city’s commercial radio stations were owned by Clear Channel Communications, whose office was unstaffed for the night. Hundreds of people were hospitalized as a result of the spill, which has become a touchstone for media reformers who decry media consolidation. “It gives people pause,” says Szczepanczyk. “People can be very really affected by abstract issues regarding politics and media.”

The idea that a medium as passive as TV could mobilize the public appeals to him. “It could be the biggest irony of all,” he says. “People have known this for a long time, especially in the broadcast industry—do not screw with people’s TV sets. And here we’re seeing the biggest screwing-with of people’s TV sets that we may ever see. You are not going to do that without some kind of political blowback.”

When the conversion’s over, Szczepanczyk may find a little more time to give to other projects. He’s working to master Polish and American Sign Language. An aspiring mathematician and economic theorist, he’s active in the Chicago Area Participatory Economic Society, which champions an economics “based upon the democratic ideals of equity, solidarity, diversity, efficiency, and participatory self-management.” And in September, in addition to getting married, he hopes to try out for Jeopardy.v

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