Minorities Less Prepared For Digital Shift

In less than two months, television owners face a switch to digital broadcast. But reports indicate minority groups are at higher risk of not being ready for the change. Michael Sherman, general manager of San Francisco-based Asian-language TV station KTSF, explains why some Asian immigrants will see static on their TV sets in February.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley in for Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we speak with singer Howard Hewett about his latest holiday CD. But first, after February 17th, broadcast television is going digital, by law. There's been lots of publicity about the upcoming change. But Nielsen Media Research recently estimated that seven percent of all U.S. households are still not ready for the transition. The numbers are higher in communities of color, particularly for Asian immigrants. And here to talk about the transition and the challenges facing Asian immigrants is Michael Sherman. He is the general manager of KTSF, an Asian-language television station in San Francisco. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL SHERMAN (General Manager, KTSF): You're very welcome.

CORLEY: So, at the end of the day, February 17th, it's the big shift; no more analog TV. So, exactly what are we supposed to be doing to get ready?

Mr. SHERMAN: You mentioned the numbers of homes that are completely unready. Certainly, in the Asian community, those numbers are over 10 percent right now. There are several steps that can be taken, but I think the first thing to point out is that, do you really need to do anything? Those homes that are, number one, currently connected to cable, are good to go; there's no changes necessary as long as all the TVs in that household are connected. If you subscribe to satellite, you're good to go; there's no problem. If you have a digital television set, there's no problem. So, the homes at risk are those homes receiving signals over the air with no pay services, using analog television sets. And if you are in that situation, you will no longer receive a television signal after February 17th.

CORLEY: So, we're talking older TV sets.

Mr. SHERMAN: Generally older TV sets. Now, there are certainly steps that can be taken if you're in that situation.

CORLEY: And what would some of those steps be?

Mr. SHERMAN: The best thing to do, probably right now, is to look at the option of getting a DTV converter box. The Department of Commerce several years ago instituted a plan where any home in the United States can get two $40 coupons. These coupons can be exchanged, at retailers around the country, for converter boxes that will take the digital television signal and convert it for use on an analog television set. So, even a very old analog TV set can be made, with this converter box, to receive a digital signal.

CORLEY: So, we've heard a lot about converter boxes, or at least they've been trying to get the word out with public-service announcements, those sorts of things. But what are the particular challenges that Asian immigrants are facing with the transition? Mr. SHERMAN: Well, the primary challenges right now are ones of language. And we found that, in our community, if we look at the Chinese-American community in the San Francisco area, 28 percent of those homes were receiving over-the-air signals, compared to about 11 percent of the general market. Now, since most of those homes were using analog TV sets, these were the most at-risk homes in the market.

We went out to government organizations, including the FCC and the Commerce Department, and raised the issue about the need to put out materials in language, and got a fairly immediate response from both organizations. They started producing materials in language. They came out to San Francisco and other cities with large Asian populations to do community outreach, to educate those members about the options available. So, we've seen some steps taken so far in terms of educational outreach, but it's still not quite there, because what we see in the Asian community is still the percentage of homes completely unready, with just two months to go, much higher than the general population.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Are you hearing from your viewers, and are they calling in asking what they should be doing?

Mr. SHERMAN: They are. And we've also conducted several outreach programs of our own. My sense of it right now is that there's very few people that are not aware of the transition that's about to take place. I think the awareness level of that is quite high. Where we tend to see the issue is in going ahead and filling some of the options that exist.

The DTV coupons that will essentially be - allow somebody to get a converter box for just a very few dollars, that option has not quite taken place completely yet. What we're seeing is that, right now, the federal government has given out about 40 million coupons, but only about 50 percent of those coupons have been redeemed. So, we're seeing some procrastination. A couple of important points there. Number one, the coupons have a 90-day expiration. If they're not redeemed within 90 days of receipt, they're no good. The other important thing is that, if you've applied for a coupon, the important thing now is to redeem that coupon as soon as possible, and to install it as soon as possible.

CORLEY: Michael Sherman, general manager of KTSF in San Francisco. He joined us from a studio at University of California-Berkeley School of Journalism. Thank you so much.

Mr. SHERMAN: You're welcome.

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