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Denver 'at risk' in TV switch

FCC targets city to educate people on digital change

Published September 12, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.

An analog-only TV is displayed in Wilmington, N.C., as a test transition from analog to digital television signals begins. Wilmington was the first city in the U.S. to test all-digital TV.

An analog-only TV is displayed in Wilmington, N.C., as a test transition from analog to digital television signals begins. Wilmington was the first city in the U.S. to test all-digital TV.

Bandimere Speedway CEO John Bandimere Jr. and his wife, Lorraine, were shopping at the Best Buy store near Colorado Mills this week, buying converter boxes for two of their old analog TV sets.

John Bandimere had two $40 government coupons in hand. The coupons defray most of the cost of buying the module needed to receive digital TV signals.

"I tried to talk my wife into going to a digital TV," he said.

"But I'm old-fashioned," Lorraine Bandimere added. "I don't like change, I guess is how you put it."

The Federal Communications Commission can only hope the Bandimeres are representative of the television-watching public: Not only are they aware of the Feb. 17 date when TV stations will switch from analog to all-digital broadcasts, they also are aware of their options.

Simply put, people who now watch TV for free on analog sets, using antennas or rabbit ears, will be out of luck on Feb. 17 unless they either buy a converter box or a digital TV, or subscribe to a cable or satellite TV package that includes local channels.

A survey conducted by Smith- Geiger for the National Association of Broadcasters earlier this summer found 90 percent of U.S. households are aware of the transition - up significantly over previous surveys by various groups.

The figure was similar for Colorado, where an estimated 294,870 homes rely exclusively on over- the-air signals.

Watchdogs have doubts

But consumer watchdogs still question whether those households really understand what they need to do and how to do it.

The FCC also is concerned enough that it is targeting Denver as one of dozens of "at-risk" metro areas, based on the number of affected households.

The FCC plans to send a commissioner and staff members to the area on Oct. 16 to educate people and encourage local broadcasters to run public service announcements.

This week, Wilmington, N.C., became the first city in the U.S. to go to all-digital TV as a test site for the transition.

Awareness was extremely high, thanks in part to more than 400 presentations, training sessions and other public events attended by FCC officials before the switchover.

Still, an FCC help line reported receiving 797 calls the first day of the transition.

More than half the calls were from people who reported problems with reception. Others had difficulty setting up their converter boxes and scanning for digital channels.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in a telephone interview, said the regulatory agency is still working through some of the reception issues.

But he said that for some it was simply a matter of helping them redirect their antennas.

Martin emphasized the positive: "Our experience in North Carolina indicated the vast majority of viewers were aware of the transition."

Only 23 of the 797 callers weren't aware.

Elon University in North Carolina, whose students monitored a separate trouble line staffed by TV stations and Time Warner Cable, handled similar problems from mostly older callers.

"We were able to resolve the majority of calls to the television station(s) by advising them to adjust their antenna and rescan for channels," Connie Book, associate dean of Elon's Communications School, wrote in an e-mail.

Book estimated that judging by the calls to all the help lines combined, about 1 percent of the households in Wilmington experienced problems. That gives an idea of what might happen in other markets, she said.

FCC asks for $20 million

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said she worries about what will happen at the last minute.

From the surveys, she said, it seems clear that while consumers are generally aware, "they have misconceptions about what they need to do. There's a lot of room for misunderstanding and mischief."

She said older people, people with disabilities and people who aren't proficient in English are especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of, whether by retailers, pay-TV providers or crooks who try to sell fraudulent equipment. A legitimate converter box has a label showing it has been certified.

Grant said she doesn't believe the government has spent sufficient resources to educate consumers and is instead relying too much on the private sector, which has a vested interest in generating sales. She noted that some ads imply consumers should subscribe to cable or satellite TV service to avoid problems.

Martin noted the FCC has asked for an additional $20 million to supplement the $15 million allocated in the past 24 months to notify the public.

"I think we do need additional resources," Martin said. But he also said it's important to get the private sector involved as much as possible.

Trade associations, pay-TV providers and major home electronics retailers across the country have stepped up to help educate consumers.

As just one example, the retail chain Best Buy, while emphasizing expensive high-definition TVs, also runs ads about the analog-to-digital transition on in- store TVs, and has a separate shelf for converter boxes complete with brochures that answer frequently asked questions.

Best Buy also has launched an educational Web site (askablue shirt.com) and a Facebook application.

Daniel Terriquez, who works at the Best Buy near Colorado Mills, said he thinks consumer awareness is increasing slowly, but that there is still confusion over whether a particular TV set is digital or analog.

A TV purchased since 2004 almost certainly has a built-in digital tuner and some between 1998-2004 do as well. But customers should check the manual or call the manufacturer if they have questions.

smithje@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5155

What is happening?

On Feb. 17, 2009, all full-power TV stations in the U.S. will stop broadcasting in analog and will switch to all-digital signals.

* Why?

Digital signals provide clearer pictures. The airwaves used for analog TV are valuable and are being freed up for advanced commercial wireless applications and emergency use.

* Who is affected?

Those who have analog-TV sets and receive signals over the air for free. Subscribers to cable- and satellite-television services are not affected by the changes.

Options for those affected:

1 Keep your existing TV and buy a converter box that plugs into the TV. Consumers are entitled to receive up to two $40 coupons per household by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 or going online at DTV2009.gov. Various retailers sell the boxes, typically at around $60.

2 Purchase a TV with a digital tuner. This doesn't have to be an expensive high-definition TV. New televisions, which can cost as little as $200 or so, are equipped with a digital tuner. If your TV was purchased since 2004, chances are that it has a digital tuner. Check the manual or check with the manufacturer if you have a question.

3 Subscribe to a cable-, satellite- or other pay-TV service.

Tips

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in an interview with the Rocky this week, offered these observations:

* A consumer who has clear analog reception today with just rabbit ears should be able to get clear digital reception with a converter box. In fact, the vast majority will get better reception.

* Those who aren't getting good reception today with their analog TV may not get good digital reception either. Also, some consumers who live at the geographical edge of a station's market coverage area may need a rooftop antenna.

* Apply for a government coupon as soon as possible so you can buy a converter box, set it up in advance and scan for channels. Most stations already are broadcasting in digital (as well as analog until Feb. 17). If you can't get reception, try to analyze the problem yourself or seek help.

Resources

* DTV2009.gov

* DTVAnswers.com (National Association of Broadcasters)

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