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.
Most of Telemundo's viewers in the region watch the station on a cable or satellite service. But those who rely on antennas will no longer receive the programs, said Wendy Thompson, the station's general manager.
"For minority broadcasters, this is a major issue," she said. "We have to expect the worst and hope for the best."
TeleFutura is also a low-powered station in Washington, but it recently launched its own digital signal in an effort to keep over-the-air viewers -- but they will still need a converter box to receive the new signal.
Another Spanish-language broadcaster, V-me, expects to benefit from digital transition. V-me has been digital since its debut last year on Maryland Public Television, and it hopes to be broadcast in the District and in Northern Virginia by February. Once over-the-air viewers get a converter box or buy a digital TV, the station expects it will be in 80 percent of Hispanic households in the region, compared with its current 50 percent.
"Our numbers are going to jump dramatically," said Carmen DiRienzo, president of V-me. "All those Hispanic households are going to see us as easily as they used to see their analog channels."
Nationally, more than 40 percent of Spanish-speaking households watch over-the-air television, according to the Knowledge Networks/SRI survey. Large efforts are underway to educate TV watchers about the impending transition.
The FCC has been hosting town hall meetings around the country and distributing educational materials in multiple languages, with particular emphasis on Spanish. And the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is in charge of distributing government-subsidized $40 coupons to help consumers pay for converter boxes that typically cost $50 to $80, operates a Spanish-language hotline that fields about 40 percent of the total calls to the agency. IBM, which is under contract to run the NTIA's call centers, is hiring more operators fluent in Spanish.
Univision, the No. 1 Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, launched a public service ad campaign and last month started a program called Escuadrón Digital that sends "digital squads" into communities with large Hispanic populations to educate viewers about the switch. Telemundo, owned by NBC Universal, has aired several thousand announcements about digital TV during the most popular viewing periods of the day.
The National Association of Broadcasters says the efforts are working. A recent survey commissioned by the group shows that 91 percent of Hispanic households receiving over-the-air TV shows are aware of the transition, up from 31 percent in September.
Community groups worry that Spanish-speaking viewers still may be left behind. The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., president of Esperanza USA, a faith-based organization in Philadelphia that has tried to get the word out about the transition, said he suspects that many people with limited incomes won't bother to apply for a converter-box coupon until their TVs don't work.
"Their eyes glaze over when you say digital because it means nothing to them -- they don't have computers, they don't have iPods," he said. "The only national media vehicle in Spanish is TV."
Lawmakers have expressed concern that switching to digital technology may negatively affect people who live near the Mexican border. Because Mexican broadcasters are not required to switch off their analog signals, some Hispanic residents of southern Texas or California may opt to rely on Mexican analog programming instead of upgrading their TVs to receive digital signals from U.S. stations. As a result, they would not be able to receive important public-safety warnings and emergency notices broadcast within the United States.
Last year, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) introduced the DTV Border Fix Act, which would allow TV stations within 50 miles of the border to broadcast in analog for five more years. The bill, co-sponsored by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), passed the Senate Commerce Committee in April.
Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) this year introduced a companion bill in the House, though it has not yet been heard in committee.
Although a government-issued coupon can offset the cost of a converter box, a box still will cost about $20, which some people living near the border can't afford, she said. Even if they could, Solis said, it could be hard to find the converter boxes in rural, hard-to-reach areas.
"The FCC thinks things are going fine, and I couldn't disagree more," she said.