Avoiding a Blank TV Screen

This article originally appeared in the January 7, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.
Consumers gear up for digital broadcasts

Jake Thomas

The Portland Observer

Big changes could be on the horizon in 2009, and one of them could be in your living room. On midnight on Feb. 17, television broadcasters across the country will stop broadcasting in analog and convert to digital.

Unless you’ve taken the right steps, you might be staring at a dark TV screen.

Digital television offers more vivid images and crisper sound. And because digital frequencies take up less bandwidth broadcasters can offer up several channels.

The switchover is one of the most momentous transitions in broadcasting history, as the U.S. joins the ranks of several European countries which have gone digital. However, the switch could render millions of televisions into oversized paper weights, and the move to digital may prove to be prickly for consumers trying to get accurate information.

Approximately 15 percent of households only have a television with analog reception, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

According to Anne Kissel Elliot, vice president of communications for the Nielsen Company, which keeps extensive data on peoples’ television watching habits, 6.8 percent of U.S. households are “completely unready,” meaning that they will have a blank screen on Feb. 17. The number for Portland is 10 percent.
“No, the country is not prepared,” said Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do about it.”
In November, Consumers Union reported the results of a poll that found that although 93 percent of Americans were aware of the transition, only a third of respondents with at least one television affected knew they needed to take action, and only a quarter who would have no working television after the transition knew they needed to do something.
Murray said that U.S. has spent far less on getting the word out compared to other countries, like Great Britain. He said that the NTIA has relied too much on the industry to educate the public. He said that the incoming Obama administration should initiate an emergency outreach effort.
So what do you need to know?
If you already have cable or satellite television, you have nothing to worry about.

But if you are among the 14.3 million Americans that Nielsen estimates still rely on an old analog set and antenna, you need to get a digital converter box, which is sold at most electronics stores. They run between $40 and $80.

Murray said that his organization has received reports of retailers giving disinformation to consumers in hopes of selling them more expensive equipment they don’t need, like digital televisions or unnecessary cables.

“It’s the basic nature of sales,” he said.

You can still get up to two $40 coupons (courtesy of the federal government) for a digital converter box, which will get your analog up to speed. They can be obtained by calling 1-888-DTV-2009, or by going to http://www.dtv2009.go. The coupons will arrive in the mail with an insert showing where you can get the box, and are good until March 31 or until supplies run out. You can only use one coupon per box and they expire 90 days after they’re issued.

According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration website, 22 million households have already requested more than 41 million coupons. Initially the government made 22.25 million coupons available upon a first-come-first-serve basis, with no eligibility requirements. Once those are out, the NTIA will issue another 11.25 million for households that rely exclusively on analog television.
According to Todd Sedmak, spokesman for the NTIA, there are still 15 million coupons available. However, he stresses the importance of people acting sooner rather than later because they take three to four weeks to arrive and people might hit some snags setting it up.

“You either get reception or you don’t,” he said of the potential problems viewers may face. He explained that with analog you may have poor reception resulting in a blurry image, but with digital a bad signal means a blank screen.

Congress initiated the switchover with several pieces of legislation passed in 2005. The laws mandated that broadcasters go digital, and auctioned off the publicly-owned airways used for analog broadcasting.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 puts the money made from the auction into a fund and directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to give out coupons for a converter box. The NTIA can use $890 million from the fund, and can get another $510 million with congressional approval.

The NTIA has no plans to deal with an increase in demand, according to a GAO report.

However, Sedmak said that the NTIA spent $5 million spreading the word and partnered with a number of private organizations to help. It gave another $4.35 million to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to get through to the elderly and minorities, which disproportionately rely on analog.

He added that the television industry has spent $19 billion on education efforts.

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About jakethomasreports

Jake Thomas is the web editor and news reporter at the Portland Observer. His freelance work has been published in In These Times, Utne Magazine, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, and others.
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