Thursday, February 19, 2009

Volunteer DTV Extension Wreaks Havoc


By Karen Toering

Do we love TV too much? Maybe.

But for nearly all American households, television provides more than mindless entertainment. It's also our most important lifeline for news and information.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 98.6 percent of American households have at least one TV set. And a Project for Excellence in Journalism study shows that more of us get our picture of the world from local TV news than from any other single source.

That is why Congress voted earlier this month to delay the biggest change in over-the-air television in nearly 50 years -- the federally-mandated switch to digital television. Congress pushed back the date from Feb. 17 to June 12 because there are still far too many people who are unprepared for the transition.

Congress left a loophole, however: local broadcasters across the country were given the option to transition earlier. In many large cities, stations have opted to delay their digital shift until June 12, giving viewers another few months to prepare. Stations in rural areas and mid-sized cities have opted to switch on Feb. 17. In Washington State, those cities include Bellingham, Yakima, Spokane and the Tri-Cities.

Whenever stations switch to digital, the effect will be the same: TVs that use set-top or rooftop antennas will no longer work without a new digital converter box (cable and satellite subscribers will not be affected).

Millions of people are aware of the changeover, but just as many are confused by just what the transition means for them. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights estimates that some 21 million households will automatically be cut off from television, our primary news and information source.

Many of these households are people of color, senior citizens, people with disabilities and those who depend on programs in languages other than English.

Community-based DTV assistance centers set up in various cities have responded to questions from people confused about whether they need to buy a new television (they don’t), or about problems with hooking up the boxes, or with antenna problems.

In these troubled economic times, many TV viewers have been slow to switch because of the perceived expense. Cable companies have been running confusing ads touting their pay-tv service as the simplest way for households to manage the DTV switch.

The most affordable solution is to get a converter box which will allow old TVs to receive the new digital signals. A federal government program is providing two $40 coupons toward the purchase of a converter box to every American household. Those interested in receiving the coupons can apply at or by calling 1-888-DTV-2009.

Converter boxes are available online for as low as $40 -- but in Washington state, most retailers are generally charging $60 or more for the boxes.

Adding to the stress for some consumers is the fact that there is now a substantial waiting list for those government coupons -- nearly 26,000 people in Washington state are on that list. But the stimulus package recently passed by Congress included additional funding to get those coupons moving again.

In order to help make this switch go smoothly for everyone, electronics retailers need to provide low-cost boxes; it's also up to the federal government and community partners to work together to provide more thorough education and outreach to keep seniors, people with disabilities and low-income consumers from being left behind.

But it’s not just up to the government. We all have a role to play. The extension will give some of us more time to figure out what we need to do to successfully make the transition. If you haven’t already applied for a coupon -- you should do it. If you have an extra coupon that your family won’t use -- donate it. And if you have a family member or friend who isn’t ready -- help them.
Toering is coordinator of the Seattle DTV Assistance Center, a project of Reclaim the Media, at
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 2/09