Time for a Federal Bailout for Rabbit Ears

I have been watching television now for over 56 years. Not in one sitting, mind you. I have gotten up from my Barcalounger from time to time to go to the bathroom or make a sandwich. And I did break away from the screen long enough to get an education, pass the bar exam, get married and raise a family. But other than that, I have pretty much been watching television constantly for over a half century.

My addiction to television stems from my childhood. I grew up as part of the "Leave It to Beaver" generation in the '50s and '60s. In those days, everybody in America (whether they admitted it or not) watched TV all the time. Back during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, watching TV was sort of like smoking. We didn't know it was bad for us, so we just did it all the time.

Television brought America together in the '50s and '60s. That's because not only did we all watch television, we watched the same shows. You see, there were only three channels on TV back in the '50s and '60s. There was CBS (Channel 3 in Memphis) that brought us "The Ed Sullivan Show," featuring Elvis, The Beatles, and Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse.

There was NBC (Channel 5 in River City) that telecast "Bonanza" and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," although on our set it was "Walt Disney's Wonderful World in Black and White."

And there was ABC (Channel 13 in Memphis), that telecast "Batman," "The Flintstones" and "Bewitched."

Our family TV sat proudly in our living room. It was a huge brown wooden box with a very tiny screen that resembled a porthole on a ship. And on top of the big brown box was something we called "rabbit ears." These were little metal rods that somehow magically captured the pictures and sound from the airwaves and put them inside our TV set. I'm not really sure, but I think rabbit ears were kind of like those tubes that Al Gore designed to make the Internet work. But even with the rabbit ears, we didn't always have a clear picture. Sometimes the picture would go fuzzy or totally white. It was as if right in the middle of the "Ed Sullivan Show," Elvis got lost in a blizzard.

When this happened, my father would direct me to stand behind the television set and move the rabbit ears around until the picture came back. Sometimes we attached aluminum foil to the tips of the rabbit ears. More often than not, this made the picture clearer. To this day, I have no idea why aluminum foil made the rabbit ears work better. I have never seen a bunny rabbit wearing aluminum foil on his ears to help him see.

I had rabbit ears on top of my TV set until around 1980 when something absolutely wonderful happened. I got cable TV. I don't know who invented cable TV. Sir Frederick Cable? But whoever did it deserves to rank right up there with Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, Ron Popeil, and Al Gore among the greatest inventors of all time. Once I got cable TV, I didn't have just three channels. I had 300, including and especially the greatest channel in television history, ESPN.

That's one of the ironies of cable TV. I now have a hundred times the TV channels I had when I was a child with rabbit ears, but I only watch one channel, ESPN. (Well, two, counting ESPN2.)

My son, Ken, once asked me why I have never run for public office. After all, in 1969, I was president of the Frayser High Student Council, a position that has long been regarded as stepping-stone to the position of Memphis City Dog Catcher. When Ken asked me why I had never thrown my hat into the ring, I replied without hesitation, "ESPN."

"ESPN? What does that have to do with you not going into politics?" asked my son.

"Simple," I replied. "If you are a politician, all you do is go out every night, make speeches, and ask people for money. I don't want to go out every night, make speeches and ask people for money. I want to stay home and watch ESPN."

But while I traded my rabbit ears for ESPN nearly 30 years ago, rabbits, or at least their ears, are still prevalent in an estimated 6.5 million American homes. Folks living in these homes still get their TV the old-fashioned way, through airwaves sent by analog transmitters and then magically captured by rabbit ears. How these folks live without ESPN is beyond me.

But last year, Congress voted to pull the plug on analog transmitters, effectively putting rabbit ears on the endangered communication species list. Feb. 17, 2009, was set for the date when all television broadcasts in America would be digital.

Washington bureaucrats tried to warn Americans that the switch to digital TV was coming. But apparently, they made the announcement on C-span, so folks who didn't have cable never saw it.

Last fall, about the same time the federal government started doling out billions of dollars to poor struggling bankers, the Commerce Department began passing out coupons to help the millions of Americans with rabbit ears buy converter boxes so that their old TV sets could receive the new digital signals. (The converter boxes are probably made of aluminum foil.) But in January, the Commerce Department ran out of money, since the federal government had apparently spent all its money, and then some, trying to help all those poor struggling folks on Wall Street who had flown to Washington in their private Lear jets to beg Congress for money.

Shortly after Groundhog's Day, millions of rabbit-eared Americans finally got the word. They were about to lose their television reception, which meant that they would have to switch to radio and listen to Rush Limbaugh all day. This caused a panic that made the stock market crash pale by comparison.

In the face of this terrible crisis, our new president, Franklin Delano Obama, met the challenge. A Harvard Law grad, President Obama did exactly what any good lawyer does in the face of a crisis. He asked for a continuance. And when he asked, Congress acted, extending the death date for analog TV from Feb. 17 to June 12.

The panic has subsided, and as you read these words, rabbit ears are still magically capturing the image of Al Roker and putting it on the TV screen.

But the clock is ticking. Football season is less than five months away, and for the millions of Americans who do not have ESPN, there could be major suffering this fall.

I urge President Franklin Delano Obama to act now. The solution is simple. He and Congress need to bail out the rabbit-ear TV viewers and give every American the TVs we deserve. Cable TV is like health care. It's a right, not a privilege. Every American deserves ESPN, and they deserve it now.  


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.