Inform Viewers About Digital-TV Changeover

Monday, March 10, 2008

America is only a year away from a fundamental change in television, and too many in our nation are unprepared for it. Federal law requires that on Feb. 17, 2009, all full-power television stations stop broadcasting in analog format and begin broadcasting only in digital.

That means that all TV sets not equipped with digital tuners will no longer receive over-the-air programming through antennas. Viewers who receive television via cable or satellite will not be affected, but an estimated 21 million TV households that rely on free over-the-air service as their sole source of television will have to take action.

National consumer research tells us there is more concern than clarity about the readiness of viewers for this change. Surveys by the National Association of Broadcasters and the nonprofit Consumers Union indicate that a majority of Americans need more information and guidance to prepare for the switch-over.

The Consumers Union survey in January revealed that even among consumers who are aware of the transition, 58 percent believe all TVs will need a digital converter box to function. And 73 percent of those surveyed were unaware of the government coupon program created to offset the cost of purchasing a digital converter.

By conducting focus groups, PBS learned that many over-the-air viewers are not interested in acquiring cable or satellite service as a means of coping with the transition. People told us they wanted straightforward information and guidance about the transition without being pressured to buy a new product or a new service.

Many well-intentioned organizations are becoming engaged in this endeavor. As the changeover draws closer, many partnerships and coalitions are working toward a successful transition, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department that is offering up to two $40 coupons per household toward purchase of converter boxes that cost $40 to $70 each. But there is much more that can and should be done in the next few months, including addressing potential inequities and shortcomings in the coupon system.

Television remains our society's great equalizer. Not every home has a computer, but almost every American home has a television.

In the weeks and months to come, information and recommendations about digital television will come from many directions -- from the private sector, the federal government, a range of broadcast entities and interest groups.

The issue is fundamental for PBS. Our programming is available to 99 percent of America's TV households and we want to make certain that is the case a year from now, when the transition is complete.

This is especially important for the many households that depend on us as their sole source of television and for the minority, older and rural populations that will be disproportionately affected, according to NTIA research.

PBS has already begun airing TV spots featuring personalities from "This Old House" who will offer information and guidance about the transition and about what those viewers with over-the-air television need to do. We also offer information on our Web site (

At the same time, many of the more than 350 PBS stations around the country are beginning campaigns to inform viewers about what must be done to navigate the transition from analog to digital. Some stations, for example, will hold converter-box demonstrations at their facilities and provide tips in program guides and at community events.

It will take a consistent, coordinated and well-funded grass-roots effort. America's television viewers are entitled to nothing less.

Paula A. Kerger is president and chief executive of Arlington-based Public Broadcasting Service, which serves about 350 noncommercial television stations in the United States.

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