February 28, 2007 10:37 AM PST

Campaign to educate public on digital TV switch

WASHINGTON--Concerned that millions of Americans don't understand what the February 2009 digital television switch means for their sets, a number of industry and public interest groups on Wednesday said they plan to launch an educational campaign.

Trade associations representing consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers, the cable and broadcast industries, public television stations, and civil rights advocates have aligned themselves as the DTV Transition Coalition and plan to pool unspecified millions of dollars to educate consumers about the crossover from analog TV.

The announcement of the alliance's formation at a press conference here arrived one day before manufacturers must cease shipping TVs, VCRs, DVD players and recorders, digital video recorders and other devices that contain only an analog tuner. The proposed transition from analog to all-digital broadcasts has been in the works for years, but Congress decreed in late 2005 that analog TV spectrum had to be vacated after February 17, 2009.

The deadline will not affect the vast majority of Americans who already subscribe to cable or satellite TV. But an estimated 19 million households, according to a recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) survey, that do not subscribe to those services, must either acquire a digital-to-analog converter box or another device, such as a VCR or DVD player, containing a digital tuner to continue receiving free, "over-the-air" shows on their analog TV sets.

The new campaign also launches as leaders in Congress continue to voice concern about what some perceive as a lack of guidance from the Bush administration on a planned program to subsidize converter boxes. In an attempt to ease the transition, Congress set aside $1.5 billion so that American households may request up to two $40 vouchers to use toward purchase of the devices, which are expected to cost between $50 and $70.

With 10 months until the voucher program is scheduled by law to begin at the start of 2008, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is charged with presiding over the hand-outs, has not yet released final rules explaining how it will work.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, blasted the situation in a speech at a broadcasters' conference on Tuesday.

"We don't yet have technical standards for the boxes," he said. "We don't know when the boxes will be ready. We don't know how much personal information consumers must disclose on the application. We don't know whether retailers will maintain an adequate supply of boxes and report redemption rates in a timely manner."

In a brief appearance at Wednesday's press conference, NTIA official Meredith Baker said the rules would be coming "very soon" but declined to take further questions from reporters before exiting the room.

The newly formed coalition said its goal is to provide a unified source of information for the public. Through a dedicated Web site and eventual televised public service announcements, some said the groups plan to treat the issue as though they were conducting a high-profile campaign for political office.

Right now, however, "we have a candidate with virtually no name recognition," conceded Jonathan Collegio, vice president of NAB's digital television transition team.

Between 41 percent and 43 percent of American households, with at least one working TV that relies solely on over-the-air broadcasts, was aware of the transition to digital broadcasts, according to NAB-commissioned random telephone surveys of about 3,000 households conducted in January and February of this year. Of that same group, only 9 percent of those households could correctly state the year the shift is set to occur.

Public interest groups also remain concerned that elderly and low-income households, which tend to rely more heavily on free, over-the-air broadcasts, will be left behind.

"Like some science fiction nightmare, the news they watch, the programs that keep them company and let them know what is happening down the block will, poof, disappear," said Nancy Zirkin, vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, whose more than 200 member organizations include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL-CIO.

As the government irons out the parameters of the subsidy program, Zirkin said she hoped priority would be given to "those in need, so the money isn't gone before all the people who need it get it."

The U.S. government has long been pushing for the digital television shift so that it may set aside a certain amount of the freed-up TV spectrum for use by emergency responders. It also expects to raise as much as $10 billion for the federal treasury by auctioning off the remaining spectrum to companies that say its inherent scientific properties will make for easier and cheaper broadband deployments.

See more CNET content tagged:
digital television, household, analog, converter box, transition


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Surely more people should know about this
You would think that the companies would have done a better job at informing these people. Because they may not realize it but not everyone is into technology!!!

Josh Chandler
Posted by jchandler15 (30 comments )
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How long have VCR's had digital tuners?
If it's been awhile, then anyone could go to a local pawn shop, Goodwill or Salvation Army and pick one up for $20. Why is this a big deal? I'm sure there are enough second hand VCRs to cover ALL the "low income" households that might be affected.

And why even involve the end consumer in the rebate/voucher issue? why not just work that out with the retailers as an instant rebate?
Posted by DaClyde (96 comments )
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Do they still make VCRs?
I think I remember reading about them in history class.

The reason for the vouchers is that they want to limit the number of vouchers per person (or family). No one wants a few people to get all of the low cost boxes.

The problem I have is that many of the low income and older people will be the ones who will not know how to hook the converters up.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
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