FCC Seeks to Calm Nerves over Digital TV

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The FCC announces on Thursday that it will use the city of Wilmington, N.C., as a testing ground for changes in the way millions of Americans get their TV signals. By February of next year, regular over-the-air TV signals are supposed to be phased out — and the FCC wants to make sure this process goes smoothly.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The FCC moved today to address anxieties about the coming transition to digital TV. It announced that the city of Wilmington, North Carolina will become the testing ground for coming changes in the way millions of Americans get their TV signals.

In less than a year, February 2009, regular over-the-air TV signals are supposed to be phased out, and the FCC wants to make sure the process goes smoothly.

Joining us is Yuki Noguchi, NPR's new business correspondent.

Yuki, welcome.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Thank you.

BLOCK: And why Wilmington? How did they get to be the guinea pig here?

NOGUCHI: Well, the idea here is to test things out on a smaller scale, and the FCC chose Wilmington because it's ready, willing, and it's a pretty safe bet. It's a small city. It's got four broadcast stations, and all those stations have their digital transmitters already in place. Also, a large majority of its population gets its TV via cable or satellite, so they don't need to do anything to get the new digital television signals. There are still, of course, a couple thousand people who get their over-the-air signals, and those are the ones who are going to be affected.

BLOCK: How did this idea of running a test market essentially in Wilmington come about in the first place?

NOGUCHI: Well, the idea of dipping a toe in the water using a small test market actually comes from Britain, which is also set to go through its own digital transition in a couple years. And one of the FCC commissioners went over to witness such a test and decided let's bring this over here. In Wilmington the switch will happen on September 8th, which is less than six months before the rest of the country.

BLOCK: And what are the pitfalls? What could go wrong?

NOGUCHI: Well, Wilmington, the worst case scenario isn't that bad. They could discover that the signals are hard to reach in the more remote areas, but when you blow it up to the bigger national scale, things get more complicated. You've got a bigger population, thousands of stations, lots of local cooperation that's necessary, and the single most vexing issue is consumer education. It's just not that easy to install one of these converters. You can apply for a government coupon to offset the cost, but then you have to choose one of these boxes and you have to, you know, move your TV, plug it in into the back of the thing, and that's a many step process; it's complex for a lot of people.

BLOCK: There has been a pretty active public education campaign in advance of this transition.

NOGUCHI: Absolutely. The government and the electronics industry have spent millions. They're doing educational events at local libraries, for example, and running public service ads. They're trying to reach some 20 million or so households that rely exclusively on their old analog sets. Still, you know, come February 18th next year, many consumers could turn on their TVs and just see snow. The other tough thing about this, of course, is that the population most affected are the ones that are also hardest to reach, like the elderly and non-English speaking communities.

BLOCK: Yuki, a lot of people in those 20 million households that you just mentioned are going to be thinking, why, why do we have to go to all this trouble?

NOGUCHI: Well, the government decided a few years back that it needed to free up some of this broadcast spectrum. Cell phones and other wireless devices are booming now, and using digital is just more efficient. Stations can broadcast more channels with better picture quality and sound quality and use, at the same time, fewer airwaves. And with the airwaves that are left over, you can make room for new wireless technology like super-fast access in your cell phone.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thank you so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you.

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A Year Out, Digital TV Picture Still Far from Sharp

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An old TV
iStockphoto

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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