For the past two years TV stations have been sending out analog, AND digital signals for their programming. Two years ago it was mandated that this year, 2009, the analog signal would stop. So anyone who does not have a digital-ready TV, will not receive the regular programming they previously got using a standard antenna aka "rabbit ears".
The motivation is because our first responders- fire fighters, police, EMS, etc ... all use the analog signal. By the TV stations not using this signal, it opens up the analog frequency to give our first responders better communication. Since this started two years ago, I, for one, can only assume this was decided as a step towards our national security in the event something else should happen on our homeland, God forbid.
The converter boxes that are being hooked up receives the digital signal, which will be the only signal given after this year (whenever they decide to stop the analog), and converts it to an analog signal, so TVs that are not digital (aka, bought in the past five years or so)- will be able to show the programming.
The government has no big concern of providing people with "digital programming" versus an alternative, it is giving the ability for programming to be shown, period. Because this is a government mandated change by way of the FCC, I can only guess this is why the government has offered to help those who cannot afford to buy new TV's, in the way of the converter coupons. Maybe they are visualing grandmas and grandpas that have had the same little analog TV for the past fifteen years that still works perfectly?
(This is, your standard local channels, for anyone who does not have cable or satellite.)
If you currently have cable or satellite, then this does not concern you. Even if you do not have a "digital" TV (aka, for example's sake, five years or older), the receivers used by the cable or satellite company converts the signal for your TV.
If you are currently using an antenna and rabbit ears, and want to continue viewing your local channels as you are now, then you are going to either need to set yourself up on satellite (*Dish Network, preferably IMO), or get a converter box.
The converter box does not send out a signal, it has no broadcasting abilities, so no, the government does not care at this point what you are watching. Do the stations know what you are watching? Yes, it's called ratings. They already know how many people watch what, otherwise, shows would not have been cut left and right in the past year ;o)
* Why Dish Network?
For one, you'll receive a better quality signal, as Direct TV actually "rents" their satellites from Dish. Dish receives signals from more satellites than Direct, so naturally, you have better coverage (in our experience never rain delays, less blockage problems, etc..)- and, in these economic times, you can get a Family-Friendly package of over 40 channels for only $20 a month (compared to Direct TV's $30), that does not contain MTV, VH1, and CMT.
Because we are a "Dish family", the knowledge shared here is a result of the professional knowledge of someone in the "digital" industry.
** One can have every right not to trust the government for many reasons, because there are a multitude to choose from, but the topic of converter boxes isn't a valid reason. To spread insinuations of a conspiracy theory of "big brother" proportions when there is no logical, possible proof as the facts lie right now, would be considered quite ungodly to a number of Christians.