The Night The TVs Go Out

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

The industry has tried to get the word out, but many consumers still aren't getting the message: In a year and a half, millions of television screens could go dark.

Not the fancy high-definition TVs or those connected to cable or satellite. But the 70 million sets relying on rooftop or "rabbit ears" antennas will end up showing nothing but snow.

Broadcasters will stop sending analog signals and move to all-digital programming on Feb. 17, 2009. After that, antenna TV watchers will need a special converter box to watch their sitcoms and newscasts.

But many consumers have no idea that this change is coming, and members of Congress are voicing concern over the lack of cooperation between federal agencies and the entertainment industry.

The political static comes as broadcasters, retailers, cable operators and regulators clash over how to educate consumers about the change. Sales of digital television sets have nearly tripled since 2005, and the Consumer Electronics Association expects annual sales to top $26 billion this year. With the holiday season approaching, government officials in charge of managing the transition to digital TV say that they're severely underprepared and that they worry that the biggest electronics retailers are misinformed.

"If we don't do a better job of planning, we'll have one of the biggest outrages Congress has ever seen," Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last week. "This is a huge market opportunity, but also an opportunity for a huge disaster."

Nearly all TV stations air analog and digital programming. But at midnight Feb. 17, 2009, stations will drop the analog signals that have been standard since the dawn of broadcast television in the 1930s. The switch of such a mainstream technology is unprecedented, and it's the biggest change for the broadcast industry since the advent of color television.

The benefit is that digital technology uses airwaves more efficiently, which means the move will free up some radio spectrum for wireless and public-safety communications. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 granted broadcasters free airwaves to carry digital signals with the understanding that once all programming went digital, the old analog airwaves would be put to other use.

Huge corporate interests are now riding on the transition. Broadcasters hope to lure viewers with crisper, sharper pictures and more stations. TV manufacturers and retailers hope to reap bigger profits if consumers opt to buy new televisions instead of modifying their old sets with converter boxes. Cable and satellite TV providers hope to sign new customers by marketing themselves as an alternative to either the converter or a new television.

But regulators fear that a fragmented or misleading education campaign could leave millions of viewers in the dark. Hard-to-reach demographics like elderly, rural or non-English-speaking viewers are at the highest risk of losing the over-the-air signals they rely on for weather, news and emergency information, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

"There is no one in charge, and that is cause for concern," said Mark L. Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues for the GAO. "There is no comprehensive planning effort, and no one is assessing what gaps exist."

Goldstein said the FCC should take the lead in guiding the transition but noted that "there seems to be some confusion" between the FCC chairman, Kevin J. Martin, and other commissioners about the extent of the agency's responsibilities in educating the public. Adelstein acknowledged that the FCC's outreach efforts have been "lackluster at best" and said "there has been a lack of leadership and resources" put toward implementing ideas. The FCC has asked for $20 million for consumer education. The FCC is also considering requiring retailers, manufacturers and service providers to educate consumers.

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