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Cable Users Could Lose Channels With Digital Switch

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Cable Users Could Lose Channels With Digital Switch

Technology

Cable Users Could Lose Channels With Digital Switch

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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

You have nothing to worry about. That's the message from cable company fliers that are flooding mailboxes ahead of the big switch from analog to digital. That switch happens tomorrow. Broadcasters across the country will finally kill their analog TV signals.

From member station WHQR, Catherine Welch reports that that assertion, that we may have nothing to worry about, may not be entirely true.

CATHERINE WELCH: The nation's transition from analog to digital has confused so many people that it's inspired a popular online parody.

(Soundbite of online parody)

Unidentified Man #1: If you are still receiving your signal over the air, you will have to convert your analog signal.

Unidentified Woman: Analog?

WELCH: A little old lady with horn-rimmed glasses wrestles with a tangle of wires as she tries to hook up her digital-to-analog converter.

Unidentified Woman: Will all of this make Jack Benny come back?

WELCH: Guess what? There are not one, but two digital transitions to worry about. To help you and granny figure them out, let's imagine a home with two TVs. The set downstairs isn't fancy. It has rabbit ears to tune in standard over-the-air channels. It's for the kids to watch "Sesame Street" on the local PBS station.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

COOKIE MONSTER ("Sesame Street"): (Singing) So, C is for cookie, that's good enough for me. Yeah, C is for cookie.

WELCH: For the kids to keep singing along with Cookie Monster, rabbit ears on top of that set need to be replaced with a converter box, or maybe even an outdoor antenna, as part of the big national digital TV switch you've been hearing about.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #2: You may know that digital broadcast television will officially replace analog broadcasts, but what does that really mean to you? Well, if you're a cable or a satellite customer, not much.

WELCH: Let's see about that. The TV upstairs is hooked up to cable, so mom and dad can watch C-SPAN. But viewers across the country are turning on their sets to discover cable channels they used to watch have vanished. And when they call their cable operators to find out why, they're being told it's part of cable's digital transition.

Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Consumers Union): The cable companies were doing this and messaging this to consumers right as the confusion about the separate broadcast transition was peaking in the marketplace.

WELCH: That's Joel Kelsey with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #3: Right now I'm watching a game and the phone is ringing -and why am I not picking it up? Because I know who it is. You see, I have Time Warner Cable's caller I.D. on TV, so when the phone rings, the person's name comes up on the screen.

WELCH: Ads like this started running on cable to promote the bells and whistles that come with its digital transition. But what's not in the commercial is that cable operators have to make room for caller I.D., faster broadband and more hi-def channels. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association's Brian Dietz.

Mr. BRIAN DIETZ (National Cable and Telecommunications Association): Cable companies are essentially taking analog channels back so that they can launch new digital services.

WELCH: If subscribers still want those channels, they'll need, you guessed it, a converter box. This is different from the broadcast converter box and could cost an additional $3 to $10 a month. Joe Kelsey of Consumers Union says a lot of viewers are confusing the digital cable converter box with the one granny was trying to hook up to get over-the-air analog signals.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Woman: Analog?

Mr. KELSEY: We're getting lots of calls from cable customers who are saying, wait a minute, I thought my cable company was going to take care of this for me. Why are they asking me to pay more to receive the same channels I've always gotten?

WELCH: The National Cable and Telecommunications Association says subscribers should've received a notice in their cable bills - that they would have to rent or buy a converter box to get missing channels that were part of the basic cable package.

In some communities, the duplicate PBS station disappeared. But in many cases it's the public access channels, known as Public, Education and Government, or PEG channels. Now some subscribers have to shell out extra for cable converter boxes to watch city council meetings or get school closings on snow days.

Mayor PHIL AMICONE (Yonkers, New York): I was furious because that was not the agreement.

WELCH: The agreement between the city of Yonkers and its cable company, says Mayor Phil Amicone, gave the city three PEG channels. But they were yanked when Yonkers' franchise agreement expired.

Mayor AMICONE: We started getting phone calls from people out in our city. Their TVs had always been able to get these PEG stations. All of a sudden, there was no longer access to it, and they were told they couldn't get it.

WELCH: Yonkers isn't alone in the tug of war over PEG channels. Raleigh, North Carolina; Sacramento, California and four towns in Michigan are all battling their cable companies to make sure residents won't need a set-top box to watch government in action.

The cable companies have seemed to compromise and are offering subscribers one free converter box for one year. After that, it will be up to consumers to decide whether they want to start paying extra for channels that were once standard offerings.

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

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