Digital TV Conversion Program Ends

fromWHQR

The government-run program intended to help people through the Digital TV transition officially comes to an end Friday. Millions of coupons have been redeemed so far, but even recipients are complaining of problems in the month since the transition to digital TV.

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If you have an old analog TV and you never got around to getting a converter box for the new digital signal, be warned: You have until midnight to order a federal coupon that will help you pay for a converter box. The end of the coupon program marks one more step in the nation's digital transition.

Catherine Welch of member station WHQR has that story.

CATHERINE WELCH: The Federal Communications Commission calls the switch from analog to digital the biggest event in television history. For viewers with cable or satellite, the big switch was a non-event, but for those with analog sets, the switch meant shopping.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Man: The federal government is offering each U.S. household two $40 coupons toward the purchase of DTV converters.

WELCH: The bright red coupons look like credit cards, and they can cut the cost of a converter box in half. But the government ran out of money for the coupon program back in January. Joel Kelsey of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, says Congress avoided a huge disaster by delaying the nationwide switch from analog to digital broadcasting and throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the coupon program.

Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Consumer Union): I think the transition was snatched from the jaws of defeat in the last four or five months.

WELCH: During this final month, leading up to tonight's deadline, consumers have ordered, on average, 38,000 coupons a day. And overall, they've cashed in some 33.5 million coupons. It's a sign that many viewers are choosing converter boxes over more expensive alternatives, such as switching to cable or satellite or buying new digital TVs.

(Soundbite of landfill)

One of the more physical manifestations of the DTV transition will take place at the landfill, when viewers start junking their old analog sets for digital models. Now, Wilmington made the DTV switch a good nine months before the rest of the country. And officials here say they've seen no real spike in TV disposal because converter boxes gave viewers a more affordable remedy.

Mr. LYNN BESTUL (Solid Waste Manager, New Hanover County): Converter boxes have really saved a lot of the analog televisions from coming into the landfill or our waste-energy facility.

WELCH: That's New Hanover County's solid waste manager Lynn Bestul.

Mr. BESTUL: I think it's going to be a while before we end up with all of the analog televisions out of the system.

WELCH: It seems that after all the problems people reported trying to figure out how to install converter boxes, antennas were a bigger problem. Many people had to hike up to the roof and futz with it or go out and buy a new one. In fact, Consumer Union's Joel Kelsey says antennas are now the biggest problem for analog viewers after the digital switch.

Mr. KELSEY: That's the result of a number of things, from the strength of the signal, which is a broadcaster issue, to the type of equipment that the consumer has, which is a consumer issue.

WELCH: Thousands of consumers across the country have reported that some stations have just disappeared. That's in part due to weakened signal strength after stations moved their broadcast signals from temporary UHF channels to VHF during the digital switch. The problem is, UHF does a better job at penetrating buildings than VHF. And the FCC's Rick Kaplan(ph) says this is blocking signals in big cities such as New York and Chicago.

Mr. RICK KAPLAN (Federal Communications Commission): It's not surprising those are, you know, obviously markets that have big buildings that make receiving signals a little bit more difficult.

WELCH: If those remaining analog holdouts make tonight's coupon deadline, they'll still have to figure out how to hook up the converter box and perhaps take a trip to the roof.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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