No, Nanna, your TV won’t kill you

May 12, 2011

In Tuesday night’s Budget speech, Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that the government would allocate funds that will assist pensioners to get ready for the switch-off of analogue television in 2013. Under this program, digital set-top boxes will be installed, pensioners will be taught how to navigate the new system, and twelve months’ technical support will be available if needed.

Sounds like a fine idea, right? You’d be surprised.

The Master Electricians’ Association warned yesterday that the government’s program might attract ‘shonky and shoddy’ operators who would risk the lives of young, unqualified workers. These evil businessmen, lured by the promise of a quick $300, would send our hapless children into roof spaces to get electrocuted. Twirling their mustaches, they would pressure our vulnerable pensioners to sign up for products they don’t need.

Then, presumably, they would lean back in their baby seal fur covered chairs, light a cigar with a page from the Constitution, prop up their feet on their piles of money and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

The Coalition, never slow to capitalise on a potential scare campaign, immediately jumped on this idea. Their original criticism – that the program was simply wasteful – was quickly shelved, and a new message, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the elderly, hit the airwaves.

Digital television will kill your Nanna! Your house will burn down while you’re watching Masterchef! It’s pink batts all over again! The sky is falling! Won’t somebody think of the apprentices?!

Okay, stop. Breathe.

Installing a set-top box is practically idiot proof. You can walk into a shop, buy one off the shelf, take it home and hook it up. Unless you’re stupid enough to try this while standing in a bathtub full of water, the direst consequence you’re likely to suffer is a headache from the sheer frustration of trying to work out which cable goes where.

Of course, if the irritation levels spike you may find yourself shelling out for another box, but that’s another story. But the point is, installing a set-top box is about as difficult as plugging in a DVD player. You don’t need any qualifications other than the ability to plug cable A into socket B.

Seems pretty straightforward – but surely that can’t be all there is to it? The warnings are so dire, there must be some hidden danger. Ah, I know! Maybe those pensioners will need new antennas! That must be it.

So I rang Nathan at New Image Antennas, and asked him. What qualifications do you need to install an antenna? Are there any electrical dangers?

He was, frankly, bemused.

To install a new antenna, you don’t need any qualifications other than the ability to not fall off a roof. Of course, it helps if you know exactly what kind of antenna to buy, and for that Nathan recommended hiring a technician. They’d get up on your roof using safety gear and wave a signal meter around to figure out the quality of signal you can receive, get the antenna for you and install it.

Electrical danger? None.

I queried Nathan repeatedly about this and he was absolutely sure that there was no electrical risk.

But surely it can’t be that straightforward?

Wait, how about this? Pensioners live in old houses, right? They’ll probably need their antenna cabling replaced! Yes, I know, that’s a ridiculous stereotype, but go with it for a moment. So, obviously you need a master electrician to do that, and this is why the Master Electricians Association is pounding the Drums of Doom. Mystery solved.

Except you don’t.

What you need is a Certificate II in Telecommunications qualification. That’ll teach you all the ins and outs (no pun intended) of laying cable, including how not to staple your fibre-optic, CAT5, coaxial or whatever cable to electrical conduits. If you want to be really picky, you can then specialise in a Certificate II in Telecommunications Cabling.

You do not need to be a fully qualified electrician.

It’s hard to find a real safety concern here. The fact that there is a huge number of antenna installation operators out there already, regularly performing installation tasks, begs the question: why on earth would the Master Electricians Association be so adamant now that Imminent Disaster Looms on the Horizon?

The possibilities aren’t comfortable to contemplate: they range from the venal to the political.

What it comes down to, though, is that a particular organisation took it upon themselves to push a panic button for reasons that appear to be utterly without foundation. And apparently, that panic button was just too Big, Red and Shiny for the Coalition to resist.

You see, people can only get worked up to a point about ‘government waste’. It’s familiar rhetoric, and it’s been over-used to the point where it degenerates into meaningless noise and people stop paying attention.

But ‘Nannas in danger’? ‘Our most vulnerable citizens at risk’? ‘Young lives endangered by shonky operators’? Well, the headlines just write themselves. You can almost hear them delivered in that stern, condemnatory voice-over while ads for A Current Affair or Today Tonight show footage of Evil Rip-off Artists running for cover away from the Crusading Reporter on the Case, can’t you?

It’s rubbish. It’s a tabloid headline – and like most tabloids, its factual basis is close to zero.

It’s an open question as to whether Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will try to push this scare campaign in his Budget Reply speech tonight. I’d like to think he’ll have more substantial criticisms of the Budget than raising the spectre of TVs lurking in the corner of the lounge just waiting to explode.

I’m not hopeful, though.

(Caveat: I am not an electrician. The information provided is from technicians and educational institutions.)

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