Digital Television Transition Problematic For Some


McCaskill critical of FCC's lack of progress in working with consumers, station owners



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January 23, 2009
Winter 2009 is shaping up to be a season of mass media confusion when it comes to television. Deadlines for converting your TV sets to digital loom, while television stations are beginning to switch frequencies and channels for the transition.

KMOV-TV (4) and KNLC-TV (24) became the first local stations to go all-digital this week. The move has been problematic for some residents who receive their signals through old antennas, rather than through satellite, telephone or cable systems.

Another snag for TV consumers across the U.S. is a major backup in requests for government coupons to offset the cost of converter purchases. The $1.34 billion program for $40 vouchers recently ran out of money, and tens of thousands of Americans are now on a waiting list.

On Feb. 17 all full-power TV stations must go digital by federal law. Analog televisions not connected to cable, a satellite receiver or a converter box will be unable to receive these digital signals. In Missouri alone, 478,000, or one in five, households do not have cable or satellite and have relied on over-the-air television.

McCaskill Joins Protest

Kirkwood's Claire McCaskill, U.S. Senator for Missouri, has expressed alarm that the federal coupon plan is inadequate to meet the needs of citizens in the state and nationally.

"I don't want a single person in the state of Missouri to wake up on Feb. 17, 2009 and not be able to get their local channels on their TV," said McCaskill, D-Missouri.

McCaskill has been vocal about the need to better educate the general public about the upcoming switch to DTV. She also has harshly criticized the Bush Administration's FCC policies for lack of progress on finalizing consumer education and broadcasting rules for station owners.

Last week, then President-elect Barack Obama said he wants broadcasters to hold off on the big switch from analog signals to digital.

Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta said government funds to support the change are "woefully inadequate," and cited concerns from consumers groups that many people haven't made the necessary upgrades.

Watching Snow

Earlier this month, Nielsen Media Research released numbers stating that nearly 8 million Americans, who are still using antennas, haven't acquired converter boxes and could be left confused and watching snow on their TV screens.

Bush Administration officials have said they were unwilling to move the digital switch deadline to later in the year, because of converter coupon problems and lack of information for consumers. It remains to be seen whether an Obama Administration taking the reins this week will act quickly to move the deadline, if at all.

Congressional Republicans argue that there's no incentive like no TV to bring home the digital change to unaware consumers. A quick trip to most electronics product stores, such as Radio Shack, can remedy the signal problem with an equipment purchase.

However, the U.S. Consumers Union has expressed particular concern for low-income, elderly and rural homeowners. They could be left with blank screens and little access to emergency broadcasts in the event of weather problems or disaster issues.

A spokesperson for McCaskill's Senate Office, Maria Speiser, said the Senator's office has done plenty of outreach to state residents to help get the word out about the DTV coupon program in Missouri.

"We've always said that reaching the coupon cap was not a matter of if, but when," said Speiser. "The Bush Administration, unfortunately, didn't show much desire to address this issue, and that's why Sen. McCaskill and the staff have done such aggressive outreach in Missouri.

"She has repeatedly pressed the Bush Administration on improving their DTV plan," added Speiser. "As a result of our outreach program, many Missouri communities have some of the highest 'coupon-take' rates in the country. Despite this, far too many households who need coupons still have not requested them, so we are encouraging Missourians who still need a coupon to get on the waiting list now."

For questions and answers about the digital switch, go to the Web site www.dtvanswers.com or consult the Federal Communications Commission site www.dtv.gov.

To make an application for a converter coupon to defray converter purchase expense, call 1-888-388-2009 or go to www.dtv2009.gov. As the Times went to press, customers filing an application at this time will be placed on a waiting list as more funding is needed for the federal DTV Program.

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