A Year Out, Digital TV Picture Still Far from Sharp

An old TV
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Help! I've Got Rabbit Ears!

Confused about what to do to get ready for the digital-TV transition? HearUsNow.org, a Consumers Union project, is one good place to start. It offers links, background, and a free Consumer Reports guide.

More Resources

The Digital Television Transition Coalition -- an alliance of broadcasters, electronics manufacturers, industry associations and more, maintains DTVTransition.org. The Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition publishes its own consumer guide. The Federal Communications Commission hosts DTV.gov.

Still have a rabbit-ear antenna on the back of your TV? Better yet, a coat hanger where the antenna used to be? Consumer advocates and federal officials have good news and bad news for you. The bad: In just over a year, you'll switch on the set and find nothing — literally nothing — to watch. The good: Up-converting your set to receive digital broadcasts needn't be as expensive as you might think.

Surprised? Don't be: A poll commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters found that almost four in five Americans have heard about the impending transition to digital.

But another poll, this one by the nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, found that three-quarters of the people it surveyed were wrong about what they have to do to get ready by the time analog signals go off the air on Feb. 17, 2009.

The explanation, according to Consumers Union's Joel Kelsey: The federal government, which mandated the switch from old-style analog broadcasting to digital and set the cutoff date, hasn't spent much to inform the public about how to deal with the switch. Instead, says Kelsey, "you see the federal government relying a lot on manufacturers, broadcasters, satellite companies, nonprofits to get the word out.

"And because there are so many people who come at the transition with so many types of agendas," Kelsey says, "consumers are confused about whether they're affected, what they need to do to prepare."

Basically, the options for anyone who wants to keep watching are:

  • Subscribe to cable or satellite service.
  • Buy a new digital-ready TV.
  • Get a converter box.

The last option will generally be the cheapest, and there's even a government-funded program to help subsidize the cost of the converters. But word of that program isn't getting out fast enough, some say, and if people don't know about the coupons, they can't request them. Philadelphia resident Don Hendrickson is worried that some of his fellow seniors will end up buying new TVs, or cable subscriptions, that they don't really need.

Some consumer advocates go further, saying that leaving the public-information campaign in the hands of the electronics industry is a bit like letting the proverbial fox guard the henhouse.

But industry types say they understand that not everyone can afford to splurge on new technology. They're stocking the converter boxes in stores like Best Buy, and they insist they want customers to know about the coupon program.

"We'd love to sell new TVs to people," says Marc Pearl, founder of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition. "But [some] people are on a fixed income. And that's why all of us together are trying to make sure people come in and know what their choices are."

In the audio version of this story, Pearl, Hendrickson, Kelsey and others discuss how U.S. industry and government agencies are handling the transition, and how it's being done differently in the United Kingdom, where the switchover is already under way. (A single nonprofit is coordinating it, spending nearly $400 million on the public-education campaign alone — in a country one-fifth the size of the U.S.)

Here at home, we can expect snags, says Kelsey, who suspects there's a reason no single government agency is rushing to lead the charge.

"There's a lot of anticipated problems," Kelsey says. "No one wants to be behind it. No one wants to pick up the ball and take charge because no one wants to get the blame levied on them."

Of course there will also be a new president in the White House in February of 2009. So the only thing harder than getting a TV signal with your old rabbit ears may be finding someone to blame when you can't.

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