Digital TV Transition, Set for June, May Get Early Test

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Government agencies and broadcasters are working on plans for an early test of the digital TV transition, saying the number of people still unprepared to make the switch has been cut, but that millions of Americans remain at risk of losing television reception next month.

One approach under consideration, as the June 12 digital TV transition day approaches, is a nationwide flip of the switch, slated for May 21. Owners of older television sets that have not been equipped with a converter box will be able to tell for certain whether they're prepared for the age of digital programming. Details of the test, in which broadcasters would switch from analog to digital broadcasts for a few minutes, are still in the works.

Three months ago, according to research firm Nielsen, 6.5 million U.S. households were said to be unprepared for the switch to digital television, still receiving signals over rabbit ear antennas. Congress voted to delay the transition from February to June, and now the number of households said to be unprepared has been cut nearly in half, to about 3.5 million.

Most Americans are aware of the switch, said Anne Elliott, vice president of communications at Nielsen. "At this point, I think it would be hard to imagine that anybody who watches television has not heard of this transition." But "there are always folks who buy presents on Christmas Eve and people who line up at the post office on April 15" to file their taxes.

No matter what happens, everyone agrees, there will still be unprepared households.

The switch to DTV has been in the works for about 12 years. The federal government and broadcasters have spent billions of dollars, both to raise awareness about the upcoming transition as well as to notify consumers of a government program under which they are entitled to receive two coupons that can be used in the purchase of converter boxes, which cost $40 to $80.

But it has been a bumpy road to the era of digital programming, which takes up less bandwidth than analog programming. Earlier this year, the government program was stuck with a backlog of four million coupon requests and had reached the end of its funding. In February, $650 million was set aside to facilitate the coupon program and the digital TV transition, as part of the Obama administration's $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Today, the backlog is gone, and consumers requesting the coupons are receiving them within days, said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who is chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet. "I anticipate a very smooth transition," he said, even though "there will never be a point at which every home is prepared."

Critics of the digital TV postponement agree with that last point and add that the delay was unnecessary, expensive -- and possibly even a threat to public safety because emergency responders have been waiting to use a part of the wireless spectrum that broadcasters will soon vacate.

The more widespread complaint, however, has been the amount of money allocated to bolster the transition program.

"This is a $650 million mistake," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who was an opponent of postponing the digital TV transition. If the transition program uses all of that money, "they've managed to spend $1,000 per household for a device that costs $50."

Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael J. Copps said yesterday that over the next month, the FCC plans to beef up call centers aimed at answering consumer questions about the upcoming transition. The agency has also helped organize demonstrations and "walk-in" centers, where consumers can go to learn how to install the converter boxes.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said yesterday that the efforts to spread awareness of the digital TV conversion are increasingly targeted at areas where more than 5 percent of households are thought to be unprepared for the shift, particularly in the Southwest, an area where many consumers rely on over-the-air transmissions and where English is not, in many cases, a household's primary language.

"We're really going to step up our targeting of communities with larger than average number of unprepared households," he said. "We're not going to rest."

Washington ranks 14th on Nielsen's latest list of top cities that will be caught unprepared for the transition. About 4 percent of Washington's population may lose their TV signal on June 12, according to the research firm.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company