Congress fears chaos with digital TV transformation

Posted by Mark Raby

Washington (DC) - During a Congressional meeting this week to discuss the looming change-over to all-digital TV, many Senators expressed concerns that much of the country is not adequately aware of the transition.

On February 18, 2009, the government will flip a switch that cuts off all commercial analog TV signals.  Government reports suggest that around 21 million households still rely on an antenna for TV reception.

Anyone with cable or satellite reception has nothing to worry about, regardless of the specifications of the TV.  Those with analog cable will either be supplied with a box that converts the signal, or the cable company will convert the signal at its end, with no change needed for the end user.

Additionally, for numerous years now, TVs have come equipped with built-in digital tuners.  The majority of Americans won't even notice any change when the February 2009 date arrives.

For the 19% of the country believed to be impacted, though, the government as well as associated organizations are concerned.  The transition poses a "high potential for a train wreck here," said Washington state Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell.

Missouri Senator Clair McCaskill, Democrat, says retailers and broadcasters need to step up their campaigns to show awareness of the change.  She doesn't want her constituents complaining to her after the fact. "They're going to call me. And they're going to be mad," said McCaskill.

People with analog TV sets that rely on antenna signals will need to buy a special converter box, which should be available from major retailers in the months leading up to the switch.  Retailers are now also required to inform customers about the transition before they sell a TV than can only receive analog signals.

Spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters Dennis Wharton has said TV stations will begin airing public service announcements beginning in December.  This form of advertising alone will cost tens of millions of dollars, he said.

The government plans to spend around $1.5 billion to send vouchers to necessary households for a free digital converter, but homeowners will need to send in an application.  Each qualifying household will receive two coupons.

The vouchers have a capped value of $40.  A handful of companies including RCA and LG are planning to release digital converter boxes that will sell for around $50 - $75.

People who don't apply for vouchers could lose out, though, and according to a poll by the Association of Public TV Stations in January showed that 61% of those surveyed weren't even aware of the digital TV change-over.

Even if consumers are educated, though, there could still be a problem.  The National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter to the Consumer Electronics Association in May with concerns that there might be a shortage of boxes that would cause viewers to have interrupted service well into 2009.

Perhaps the biggest audience that could suffer from the transition is the 60+ crowd.  The San Jose Mercury News quoted AARP board member Nelda Barnett as saying, "These consumers will be confused, frustrated and angry that this important information and entertainment source in their home is no longer operational, through no fault of their own."