Rabbit Ears Fears? Converters Clear Picture.

As broadcasters upgrade to digital signals, many television viewers are unsure how to adapt. Jason Oxman of the Consumer Electronics Association and Brian Danza of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration prepare you for the switch. Editor's Note: This video was shot before the DTV deadline was postponed to June 12, 2009.Video by Kim Hart/The Washington Post ; Edited by Kelly Martini/washingtonpost.com
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

William Meade of Springfield has three television sets in his house. One is hooked up to cable service, but the other two rely on rabbit-ear antennas to receive broadcast signals.

Like millions of TV viewers, Meade is trying to make sure he will be able to watch his favorite shows when broadcasters stop transmitting traditional analog signals in about 10 months. The switch to all-digital is expected to create more programming options and provide a sharper, brighter picture -- as long as consumers can receive the signals.

To continue getting a signal for their old TVs, Meade and about 14 million other consumers have to install a converter box.

These small, set-top box devices convert digital broadcasts back into analog so older TVs can still get a picture. As a bridge between the old and new, they play a key role in this complicated transition. Compared with the alternatives of subscribing to cable or satellite service, or buying a digital TV, getting a converter box is much cheaper.

"My TVs are dinosaurs, but they work just fine," said Meade, 54, who plans to buy converter boxes for his sets that are not hooked up to cable service. But with so many companies making those boxes, Meade is trying to navigate his options ."It's hard to know which one to choose," he said.

About 62 percent of the households that get the older, over-the-air broadcasts said they would buy a converter box or digital TV set before the transition takes effect Feb. 17, according to a survey of 1,307 households by the research firm Centris on behalf of the Association of Public Television Stations. About 10 percent of those responding said they plan to get cable or satellite service to receive digital television.

About 17 percent don't know what they will do to prepare for the transition, the survey said.

A survey of 2,000 people by the Consumer Electronics Association showed 42 percent of consumers plan to buy a converter box to continue using their current TV and antenna. About 14 percent said they'd rather buy a TV with a digital tuner.

Federal officials said they have approved 67 different models of converter boxes so far. The basic converters typically cost $50 to $80 at such stores as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and RadioShack. To help offset the cost, consumers can apply for a $40 government-sponsored coupon to help pay for the devices. Converter boxes with added features such as a DVD player or a digital recorder can cost nearly $100 and are not eligible for the coupons.

"We thought it was most important to help offset the cost for the people who simply want to keep watching TV" with basic converter boxes, said Anita Wallgren, director of the DTV converter box coupon program for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department.

About 10 million coupons have been ordered through the agency, and about 3.8 million coupons have been sent to consumers, according to the NTIA. But only about 1 percent of the coupons have been redeemed. By law, the coupons expire 90 days after they are issued.

That mandated expiration poses a problem for Spence Haynes, who lives in Salisbury, Md. His coupon expires next month, but the box he wants -- a $40 box made by EchoStar -- is not expected to hit shelves until summer.

He also wants a box that can still receive the analog signals from some community broadcasters, which are not yet required to switch to digital programming. Federal officials said several boxes already have this capability, and they expect more to be available soon.

"I just want to make sure I have access to all the options out there before these coupons turn into pumpkins," Haynes said.

At a hearing Tuesday, members of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed concern that consumers, especially those living in rural areas, may lose some programming. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) worried that people who live far from broadcast towers may have trouble receiving the digital signal, even with a converter box.

"They're going to think they did everything right and then get no signal," Klobuchar said.

Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Meredith Baker, acting assistant secretary of the NTIA, assured senators that their agencies' awareness efforts have been effective.

Baker said consumers shouldn't have a problem receiving the signals if they reposition their antennas. She also said not all converter boxes were required to receive analog signals because such a feature could degrade the picture quality and increase the cost.

The 90-day expiration for the coupons is intended to make sure unredeemed coupons can be reallocated to people who need them, she said.

"As we start to see redemption rates, we can think about reissuing to make sure everyone receives one," she said. "Our economic analysis gives us no reason to doubt that we'll have enough coupons at a 100 percent redemption rate."

Some consumers may avoid making a decision about converter boxes altogether. Kurt Scherf, an analyst with Parks Associates, a market-research firm in Dallas, said he expects some people will instead opt to buy a new digital TV because prices have dropped in recent years.

He also wonders how many different models of the converter boxes retailers will be willing to carry. His firm's observations showed that Best Buy and Circuit City each sell one model in their stores, while Wal-Mart and RadioShack list two models. A larger selection is expected to be available at online retailers, but consumers would have to pay for shipping, he said.

"It's tough for retailers because shelf space is so limited," he said. "I just hope retailers and companies selling the converter boxes use the opportunity to do the right thing and not to sell people things they don't necessarily need."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company