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Switch to Digital TV Prompts Concerns, Calls for Delay

January 26, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The impending switch to digital TV has caused confusion in some households and prompted Congress to consider delaying the switchover even further over concerns that the message has not yet reached some important groups. Kwame Holman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the final battle in the revolutionary switch to digital television. Kwame Holman reports.

CUSTOMER: Would that fit on any old TV? Will that work on any old TV?

BROADCAST WORKER: If you don’t subscribe to cable, satellite, or another paid TV service…

CUSTOMER: I don’t have neither one of them.

BROADCAST WORKER: … you would need a converter box.

KWAME HOLMAN: Workers for the nation’s TV broadcasters have spent months traveling the country delivering a blunt warning to TV viewers.

BROADCAST WORKER: It shouldn’t matter the age of the TV. You need an antenna, and you need a converter box.

KWAME HOLMAN: Their message is that older televisions that use rabbit ears to get TV channels over the air soon will receive no signal at all. At several events around Washington, D.C., recently, there was continued confusion about the federally mandated end of the traditional TV signal.

BROADCAST WORKER: Do you have any questions about the transition?

CUSTOMER: What transition?

BROADCAST WORKER: The digital television transition.

Switch to occur Feb. 17

KWAME HOLMAN: On February 17th, the nation's TV broadcast system is set to switch to digital-only TV signals, which offer enhanced images and sound over the old, so-called analog signals.

Some stations will continue to broadcast weather and emergency information for 30 days over the analog airwaves, but technicians already have done dry runs preparing for that moment when the country's 1,700 TV stations will shut off their analog transmitters.

ANNOUNCER: If you get TV by a rooftop antenna or rabbit ears, you need to prepare your TV set.

KWAME HOLMAN: Most stations currently send out both the old analog and the digital TV signals, but when the old analog signal is shut off next month, and the DTV signal is transmitted alone, more than 85 percent of TV households won't notice a change.

That's because they already receive a digital signal through their cable, satellite, or other subscription TV service, or their TV was purchased after March 2007. All sets sold after that have built-in digital receivers.

And even those who own an older, analog-only TV can get a digital signal by hooking it up to a digital converter box.

Manager John Zittrauer at electronics giant Best Buy showed how it's done.

JOHN ZITTRAUER, manager, Best Buy: Basically, you have going in from your antenna, where it says "in," going out to your TV. Now, if you have a TV that has the red, yellow and white -- what they call the composite connections -- you can run that to your TV and that's going to get you a better signal. But even if you have the older TV that just has that antenna input, you're fine, just in, and then out.

Message may not have reached all

KWAME HOLMAN: But PBS President Paula Kerger says she's worried about parts of the public television audience, because 20 percent of them rely on over-the-air TV.

PAULA KERGER, president, PBS: The public service media, which public broadcasting PBS represents, we are particularly concerned that the American people are receiving a television signal in terms of information, in terms of security, and, in the case of children in particular, so that they have access to educational high-quality programs that they rely on.

About 2 million children are watching public television over the air. There are a lot of people in rural areas for whom public television is extremely important. And those are the people that I am very worried about will lose access to the kinds of programs that we produce.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nielsen, the television research company, has reported that PBS viewership could decline by 17 percent in the immediate aftermath of shutting down the analog TV signal.

KWAME HOLMAN: Industry groups and broadcasters, such as PBS, have been advertising aggressively about the coming switch to digital-only TV. But some worry not enough has been done to reach certain viewer groups, including many Hispanics who may not be ready for the switch.

Spanish-language network Univision aired an extended public service announcement during last fall's Latin Grammys program, which had an estimated audience of 12 million. The other major Spanish-language network, Telemundo, with a daily audience of more than a million, also has been telling viewers about the switch.

JOE UVA, CEO, Univision: The Hispanic community in this country is much more affected by getting their signal through the air than any other sub-segment of the population. And as the largest Spanish-language media broadcaster in the United States, we've taken particular interest in this.

DAVID REHR, president, National Association of Broadcasters: Digital television will give people unbelievable pictures, better sound quality, more programs and services than ever before.

KWAME HOLMAN: David Rehr is president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

DAVID REHR: It's a real benefit to consumers because they'll get a wow experience with their television.

Switch caught in some snafus

KWAME HOLMAN: The "wow" from the switch to digital's better picture and sound allows the U.S. to keep up with fast-improving TV technologies in other countries, such as Japan.

The switch also enables individual broadcasters to offer multi-channel streams or several different channels from the same broadcaster.

The federal government made money on the switch by selling the so-called "spectrum" analog channels occupy to private companies. Other space on the vacated analog spectrum will go to police and fire departments to improve their communications and to create wireless broadband networks. So far, the government has raised about $20 billion from its spectrum auctions.

Kevin Martin has just left the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission.

KEVIN MARTIN, outgoing chairman, Federal Communications Commission: One of the things that we learned after September 11th was how important it was for the local police and local fire departments to be able to communicate. And they've all got older, outdated radios that don't actually talk to each other.

KWAME HOLMAN: But not all has gone according to plan. Consumer advocates pushed for a federal program, administered by the Commerce Department, that sends two $40 coupons per household to anyone who asks for them. The coupons are to be used toward the purchase of digital converter boxes.

But with just over a month to go before the switch to digital...

GENE KIMMELMAN, vice president for international affairs, Consumers Union: The program is out of money. The program can't work to help them unless Congress steps in to help us out.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gene Kimmelman leads work on federal issues for Consumers Union.

GENE KIMMELMAN: With a program that ran out of money and where the government cannot tell us how millions of people who are their waitlist can be taken care of in time, we absolutely need a delay. We need probably no more than six months just to make sure that people who have already said, "I need this just to keep my TV working," get their coupon or get a converter box to actually just keep getting over-the-air signals.

CUSTOMER: I called up for the free coupons, and they said that they ran out of money for the free coupons.

BROADCAST WORKER: Right now, the ceiling for the coupon program has been reached, and so there's a waiting list, so you can apply for a coupon, but...

CUSTOMER: I did. I did. They said it would be seven to eight weeks.

Obama calls for delay

KWAME HOLMAN: The Obama administration agreed, calling for the switch to digital-only TV to be delayed until all of the 1 million applicants still waiting for converter box coupons got them. But PBS's Paula Kerger is not sure pushing the digital deadline is the way to go.

PAULA KERGER: I think there is some concern that, if the date shifts once, then perhaps it will just continue to be pushed out, and I think that it is clear this transition needs to occur.

And so whether it occurs on Feb.17 or if it occurs a few months later, there will be a hard date. And I think the communication around that needs to be very clear that this is a transition that is happening and that everyone that is affected by it needs to make some decision about how they want to receive television.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congress is seeking more money for converter box coupons. But with many still unprepared, the Senate was moving tonight to extend the deadline for the permanent switch.