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Commentary

Dr. Fred McKinney | 2/4/2009, 3:21 a.m.

America’s digital TV transition beset with problems

As it stands, on Feb. 17, 2009, all full-power analog television broadcasts in the United States will cease and existing TV stations will begin broadcasting exclusively in a digital format. The switch to digital television (DTV) will free up frequencies for emergency uses and allow broadcasters to provide more programming for their viewers through “multicasting.”

As a practical matter, people will need to subscribe to a cable or satellite television service, use a digital-ready TV set, or hook up a digital converter box to an analog TV set in order to continue watching broadcast television.

Unfortunately, the number of people who stand to lose their access to TV programming in the coming DTV transition is considerable. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of all TV households (about 30 to 40 million people) still rely on over-the-air television, most of whom are senior citizens, low-income residents or non-English speakers. In a city like Chicago, with high poverty rates and a large immigrant population, some 20 percent of residents still use antenna-only TV and an estimated 230,000 households are completely unready for the conversion.

The federal government has launched a coupon program that allows each household to claim up to two $40 coupons to help offset the cost of digital converter boxes for those that can’t afford them otherwise. But the coupons expire 90 days after they are issued; half of the more than 25 million people who have requested them have seen their coupons expire. What’s more, surveys show more than three-quarters of those who are interested in getting converter boxes are not aware of the coupon program.

Preliminary testing of digital-only TV broadcasting in the U.S. has been all but nonexistent. The sole switchover test, conducted in September in Wilmington, N.C., amounts to a false positive, since 92 percent of the viewers impacted by the test already subscribe to cable. Across the country, there have been sporadic tests — perhaps a minute or a few minutes at a time, at various times and in various locales, but nothing systematic.

Outreach about the DTV conversion has been haphazard at best. For the most part, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is counting on public service announcements (PSAs) voluntarily aired by broadcasters to inform viewers about the switch.

But only 13 percent of PSAs air during the most-watched hours of prime time, and PSAs make up only one half of 1 percent of all TV airtime.

In recent months, the FCC has partnered with senior centers and community groups to stage a series of “town hall” meetings about the DTV transition in an effort to educate some of the most vulnerable populations. But scheduling of these town hall gatherings has been ad hoc, and in many cities the meetings have been poorly attended.

The distribution of set-top converter boxes has also been fraught with serious problems. Research has shown that the sorts of stores that carry converter boxes are typically located far from the low-income neighborhoods which need them most. And many retailers have been caught flat-footed, not knowing about the transition and sometimes providing incorrect information about the conversion or the coupon program.