Correction to This Article
The article said that converter boxes cost $60 to $120. Converter boxes that are eligible for a government-sponsored coupon generally cost $40 to $80, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

As TV Goes Digital, Some Viewers May Be in the Dark

Sean Venable, who lives at St. Mary's Court in D.C., is worried his coupon for a TV converter box might expire before St. Mary's decides whether to hook up cable for residents.
Sean Venable, who lives at St. Mary's Court in D.C., is worried his coupon for a TV converter box might expire before St. Mary's decides whether to hook up cable for residents. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

Wallace Page, 87, begins and ends each day with his television. His tired legs don't let him get out much anymore, he doesn't own a computer and reading often strains his eyes. The TV set is sometimes his only connection to the outside world.

But the TV signals he's come to rely on will soon disappear. In February, traditional analog broadcasts will be shut off so the airwaves can be used for wireless phone services. And the transition to digital-only television -- the biggest change for the industry since color TV -- could leave some people in the dark.

The digital conversion presents a huge logistical and technical hurdle for the communities whose dependence on rabbit-ear-style analog TVs are high, but whose understanding of how to manage the change is low.

Many of the older TVs belong to seniors and low-income individuals -- populations that are typically harder to reach to educate about technical change. Yet these groups are also the people who most rely on their TVs for critical information such as news reports and public-service alerts. In nursing homes and retirement communities, where many sets need antennas to pick up signals, TVs could flicker out.

In the Washington region, 15 percent of TV viewers use analog signals, according to research firm Centris. In the District, nearly a fifth of the population relies on over-the-air broadcasts, the fourth highest in the nation behind Alabama, West Virginia and Kentucky, according to the company.

Nationwide, about 14 million households depend on analog TV signals, according to Nielsen Co. Centris puts that number closer to 20 million households -- about a sixth of which include people older than 65.

Page said his TV is often all that breaks the solitude of his days at Friendship Terrace Apartments, a retirement community in Northwest Washington.

"For people who are alone, the TV is the only voice you hear," said Page, who mostly watches news and documentary programs. He also recently got hooked on "That '70s Show" reruns, which remind him of a different time. "It's a little frightening to hear about such a vast change."

Americans' awareness of the digital transition is increasing, surveys show, but many people are still confused about steps they need to take to avoid losing TV when the older signals expire on Feb. 17, 2009.

Those with satellite and cable subscriptions, as well as those with newer digital TV sets, should not have to do anything to keep watching TV. But consumers with analog sets will likely have to buy a special converter box and, in some cases, a new antenna to receive digital signals.

Navigating these complexities hits the elderly harder because they're least likely to own a digital TV, according to recent surveys by Centris and Consumers Union. They also have less access to the Internet, which is a major source of information about the transition, said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union.

"The elderly population is different in that they're less tech-savvy," Kelsey said. "Will they be able to move big TV sets, and will they know how to hook up the converter boxes?"

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