Ahead Of Switch To Digital TV, Some Opposition

Not everyone is happy with the nation switching to digital TV Feb. 17. The Consumers Union called for a delay in the changeover and President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has also requested that Congress push back the date. Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, talks about his group's call for a delay.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

"Dear Chairman Rockefeller." So began a letter sent by the chair of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team to the Senate Commerce Committee this week. During the transition, the letter says, we have discovered major difficulties in the preparation for the February 17th conversion from analogue to digital broadcasting. In short, the letter is saying, there is no way the switch to digital TV is going to happen smoothly by the middle of next month. The Obama team is asking for a delay. Joel Kelsey is a policy analyst for Consumers Union, and he also thinks a delay is needed, and he joins us now. Mr. Kelsey, remind us; what is supposed to happen on February 17th?

Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Policy Analyst, Consumers Union): Well, the federal government has mandated that on February 17th, all full-power broadcasters stop broadcasting in analogue and switch over to exclusively digital broadcast. That means if you are a consumer with an older analogue television set that's not hooked up to cable or satellite, you're either going to have to buy a converter box that stands on top of your television set and will translate the new digital signals, buy a new digital television set with a tuner, a digital tuner, inside of it, or sign up for cable or satellite service.

NORRIS: So, this has been on the works for some time now since the bill was passed in Congress back in 2005. Why the need for a delay? Why the problem?

Mr. KELSEY: That's right. This has been around for a long time. And there's been quite a bit of public and private money invested in publicizing this, and a lot of consumers have taken action. However, there's still quite a bit of confusion out in the marketplace. For example, in a poll Consumer Reports conducted not too long ago, we found that 29 percent of Americans believe that everyone has to go out and buy a brand new television set; 25 percent of Americans believe that this means everyone has to sign up for cable or satellite. These are misconceptions that all would cost consumers more money than they need to spend.

NORRIS: It seems like there have been multiple problems, however, and consumers were supposed to be able to get some sort of coupon to defray the cost of the digital-to-analogue conversion. But the agency responsible for providing those coupons has run out of funds. How could that happen?

Mr. KELSEY: That's right. To make matters worse, the coupon program that was created to offset the cost of this transition for consumers has hit its $1.34 billion cap. What that means is now millions of consumers are waiting on a waiting list to get access to the funding that they need to go out and get the right equipment to make sure there's still a picture on their television set. So, essentially, right now, what we see is the government, who's making $19 billion clearing the spectrum, asking rural, low-income, elderly consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets, and we see millions of households throughout America still unprepared.

NORRIS: Millions, how many millions?

Mr. KELSEY: I believe the latest assessment by Nielsen Media Research was somewhere around seven million households. Consumer Reports conducted a poll about three months ago, and we found that 19 million Americans were living in households that had yet to take action for this transition.

NORRIS: Now, the office of the president-elect is asking the committee to consider some sort of delay. But it seems like a delay might just require a whole new advertising initiative that might, in the end, create more confusion and cost more money.

Mr. KELSEY: Well, if the goal of an education campaign is to get folks understanding a date, then that might be true. But if the goal of an education campaign is to get folks to understand how to navigate this transition, then I think a delay is necessary.

NORRIS: How much of a delay do you think it would take?

Mr. KELSEY: Well, you know, I would say that until you can prove that everyone who needs access to coupons can get one before the transition, and until there's not millions of people that aren't ready for this transition yet, it's not time to take it.

NORRIS: Three months, a year?

Mr. KELSEY: I don't think we're talking a year. But you know, we do want to leave it up to a new administration and a new Congress to figure out how much time we need for the solutions going forward.

NORRIS: Joe Kelsey, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. KELSEY: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Joel Kelsey is a policy analyst for Consumers Union.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Heated reaction in the Arab world to Israel's ongoing incursion into Gaza; that's just ahead on All Things Considered.

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