Correction to This Article
This article about the digital television transition incorrectly said converter boxes with an analog-pass-through feature were only available online. They can also be ordered by phone, and some models are available in stores.

Move to Digital TV Faces Language Barrier

Angelica Jimenez of the District uses "rabbit ears" to watch TV. Without converter boxes, such antennas won't get a signal starting in February.
Angelica Jimenez of the District uses "rabbit ears" to watch TV. Without converter boxes, such antennas won't get a signal starting in February. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

The television set in Marisa Orozco's Falls Church living room is almost always tuned to Spanish-language stations. For her parents, who don't speak English, the telenovelas -- soap operas -- and newscasts are a strong connection to their former lives in Colombia. The shows, received through the old antenna on Orozco's chimney, also help her 7-year-old daughter learn the language and traditions of her family.

But in seven months, the Orozcos' picture -- and those cultural ties -- may disappear when TV broadcasters stop airing traditional analog programming in favor of digital signals.

Hispanic viewers make up about one-third of the U.S. households that rely on antennas to receive over-the-air broadcasts, according to a survey by Knowledge Networks/SRI Home Technology Monitor.

And according to a May report released by Nielsen, Hispanic households are among the least prepared for the transition. There are about 608,000 Hispanic residents in the Washington region, according to 2006 estimates by the Census Bureau.

Local Spanish-language broadcasters are trying to get the word out about the digital switch, but some are worried that their viewers will wait until the last minute to take the necessary steps to keep watching TV, putting the stations' ratings and advertising dollars at risk.

"It seems everyone knows it's going to happen -- they're just not sure what to do about it," said Rudy Guernica, general manager of Entravision Communications, which operates the affiliates of Univision and its sister network TeleFutura in the Washington market. "We're going to get a lot of phone calls, and then it will get sorted out."

The switch to all-digital television has been bumpy. Despite multimillion-dollar ad campaigns by the government and the broadcasting industry, some lawmakers and community leaders fear that the efforts have fallen short in informing viewers who watch TV with rabbit-ear antennas that those days are numbered. Consumers who do not speak English rely heavily on such television broadcasts to receive critical information such as news and weather warnings. But these communities have been the hardest to reach and educate about the transition.

The Orozco family will need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box, buy a digital TV, or subscribe to cable or satellite service to keep watching Univision and Telemundo, the top U.S. Spanish-language networks.

"I didn't even know this was happening until last month," said Orozco, 31, who works as a secretary during the week and as a grocery store cashier on weekends. "I wouldn't even be able to hook up that box. . . . Shouldn't TV be free?"

Digital technology lets broadcasters air multiple channels at once, so Spanish-language stations would be able to provide more free TV content for the Hispanic community.

"A broadcaster could put on a movie on one channel and at the same time put on a channel of 24-hour news and a channel of sports," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last year.

But some stations could lose their audiences. Washington's Telemundo affiliate, for example, operates as a low-powered station and is not yet required by the FCC to switch to digital signals. Viewers will not be able to receive these stations' shows after the transition unless they buy a converter box with an analog-pass-through feature. Currently, these boxes are available only online, a hurdle for consumers without Internet access.

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