Cable Users Could Lose Channels With Digital Switch

Television with a digital converter

Analog TV users may not be the only ones who need converter boxes. Some cable users are losing channels with the digital transition. Weston Wade Photography/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Weston Wade Photography/iStockphoto.com

Broadcasters across the country will finally kill their analog television signals on June 12 and broadcast only in digital. For a little more than a year, local television stations have been educating their viewers about the DTV switch. And so have cable companies, which have been flooding mailboxes with fliers assuring subscribers they have no reason to worry.

But that may not be entirely true.

Some cable subscribers also could lose channels during the digital switch. That's because there are not one but two digital transitions to worry about. To help you figure them out, let's imagine a home with two TVs:

The one downstairs is not fancy. It has rabbit ears to tune in standard over-the-air channels. This set is for the kids to watch Sesame Street on the local PBS station. To keep them singing along with Cookie Monster, the rabbit ears on top of this set need to be replaced with a broadcast converter box — and maybe even an outdoor antenna — as part of the big national digital TV switch you've been hearing about for nearly a year.

The TV upstairs is hooked up to cable, so Mom and Dad can watch C-SPAN. But across the country, cable viewers are turning on their sets to discover that cable channels they used to watch have vanished. And when they call their cable operator to find out why, they're being told that it's part of cable's digital transition.

Two Digital Transitions

"The cable companies were doing this and messaging this to consumers right as the confusion about the separate broadcast transition was peaking in the marketplace," says Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

Even before broadcasters began telling consumers about the over-the-air digital switch, cable companies were making plans to add more high-definition channels, faster broadband, and on-screen caller ID for subscribers' phone service. But cable providers had to make room for these extra services.

"Cable companies are essentially taking analog channels back so they can launch new digital services," says Brian Dietz, senior director of communications for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

That's because analog signals take up a lot of cable space. So cable providers have moved them to tiers that are often not part of the basic cable package and are transmitting them digitally. To get them back, subscribers will need a cable converter box.

This is different from that broadcast converter box needed for the downstairs TV in our example. Kelsey says a lot of viewers are confusing the two boxes — especially when they were told they didn't have to worry about the over-the-air DTV transition if they had cable.

"We're getting lots of calls from cable customers who are saying, 'Wait a minute, I thought my cable company was going to take care of this for me. Why are they asking me to pay more to receive the same channels I've always gotten?' " Kelsey says.

Cable providers were initially telling subscribers they would have to pay an additional $3 to $10 a month for the cable converter box.

Customers were informed, insists the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. The industry group says subscribers should have received a notice in their cable bills that they would have to rent or buy a converter box to get missing channels that were part of their basic cable packages.

Public Access Television Missing In Action

In some communities the secondary PBS station disappeared. But in many cases it has been the public access channels, known as Public, Education and Government, or PEG, channels. Now some subscribers will eventually have to pay extra to watch city council meetings or get school closings on snow days.

Yonkers, N.Y., Mayor Phil Amicone says he was "furious" when three PEG channels were yanked after the city's franchise agreement expired.

"We started getting phone calls from people out in our city," says Amicone. "Their TVs have always been able to get those PEG stations. All of a sudden there was no longer access to it, and they were told they couldn't get it."

Yonkers isn't alone in the tug of war over PEG channels. Raleigh, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; and four towns in Michigan are all battling their cable companies to make sure residents won't need a cable converter box to watch government in action.

For their part, the cable companies have seemed to compromise: They're offering each subscriber a free converter box for one year. After that, it will be up to consumers to decide whether they want to start paying extra for channels that were once standard offerings.

Catherine Welch reports from member station WHQR in Wilmington, N.C.

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