MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In just over a year, you might sit down, turn on your TV and find nothing to watch, literally. That's what some consumer advocates are afraid of. And they say the electronics industry may be stoking that fear to make people spend more money than they need to to prepare for the transition to digital television.
Critics say the government and especially the Federal Communications Commission should do more to make sure Americans know what's coming.
Joel Rose has the second part of our series on The Challenges Facing the FCC.
JOEL ROSE: If you're one of those people who still has what they use to call a rabbit ear antenna on the back of your TV, or even better a coat hanger, where the antenna used to be, federal officials have something to tell you. So, they held a press conference last week at a Best Buy in Washington, D.C.
U: Everyone, we're going to also do a demonstration over here on the right hand side of the converter boxes.
ROSE: The head of the National Association of Broadcasters was there, so was the vice president from Best Buy, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. They were all eager to have their pictures taken with the digital converter boxes, which should be in stores next week.
People with analog TVs will need those if they're still going to get signals over the air.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was there too. He explained that the converter boxes are just one option for consumers.
NORRIS: The second option is to connect to cable or satellite service. And the third option is to buy a TV with a digital tuner.
ROSE: But all of those options will cost consumers money for something they currently get for free if they're watching over the air. Digital TV signals will be sharper and will offer viewers more choices. But that's not why Congress mandated the switch to digital. That has more to do with freeing up valuable space on the airwaves.
Congress set the date for the transition, but Joel Kelsey of Consumers Union says it provided almost no money to let people know about the switch.
NORRIS: You see the federal government relying a lot on manufacturers, broadcasters, cable companies, satellite companies, nonprofits to get the word out. And because there are so many different people that come at the transition with so many different types of agenda, consumers are very confused about whether they're affected, what they need to do to prepare for the digital transition.
ROSE: There were about 20 million households in America that only get their television over the free airwaves. 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 by Consumers Union found that three quarters of the people it surveyed were wrong about what they have to do to get ready.
Activists say those at the greatest risk of losing TV reception are rural viewers, those who don't speak English as a first language, and the elderly. Linda Riley is the communications director at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. She says a representative from the Federal Communications Commission called recently, offering to send her information about the transition.
NORRIS: And I said that's wonderful. And he said, well, I can give you some packets. How many would you need? And I said, well, there's a quarter of a million people over the age of 60 in the city of Philadelphia. And he said, well, I can give you 50 packets.
ROSE: Fifty, 5-0.
NORRIS: Yeah. So I scaled back my kind of ambitions for this.
ROSE: In the absence of any large-scale government effort, some seniors are taking it upon themselves to spread the word about the digital transition.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD TALKING)
ROSE: At Journey's Way, a community center for people 55 and older in northwest Philadelphia, retired custodian Don Hendrickson(ph) is doing his part.
NORRIS: The more information you can provide with people, the better off it is for everybody.
ROSE: Hendrickson was explaining the nuances of a government coupon program to his friends. Congress has set aside up to $1.5 billion to help subsidize the cost of those digital converter boxes. But Hendrickson says that if people don't know about the coupons, they won't know to ask for them. And he's worried that seniors will end up buying a new TV or cable subscription they don't really need.
NORRIS: And they say you need to buy this TV now because this is coming, you know? It's going to frighten people. And it's no joke. Okay, you know, I'd better do this.
ROSE: Consumer activists say leaving the campaign in the hands of industry is a bit like letting the proverbial fox guard the hen house. But retailers insist they want people to know about the coupon program, and they are stocking the converter boxes.
Marc Pearl is the founder of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition.
NORRIS: Yes, we'd love to sell new televisions to people. But these people are on a fixed income. And that's why all of us together are trying to make sure that the people come in and know what they're choices are.
ROSE: A year ago, Pearl helped organize retailers, broadcasters and others into a DTV coalition, which now has more than 200 members. Pearl says they've tried to educated consumers through Web sites and public service announcements on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
U: Television, as we know it, is about to change. By law, the old method of transmitting TV signals known as analog must switch to new digital technology by...
ROSE: The transition to digital TV is already underway in the United Kingdom, and it's being handled differently.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
U: (Singing) Everybody's talking...
U: Look for the digital tick when converting your old TV or buying new TV equipment. It means it's ready for the digital switchover.
ROSE: The switchover, as the Brits call it, is happening at different times in different regions. And there's one single nonprofit called Digital UK that's in charge of everything. Spokesman Jon Steel says Digital UK staffers even make house calls to viewers who need the most help.
NORRIS: People who are older and often socially isolated so they don't maybe have their family living nearby. They're all sure where to go get help. And I think those are the people we tend to worry about most and those are the people who got, you know, the most benefit from the range of help that was put in place.
ROSE: Providing that help isn't cheap. The budget for Digital UK's public education program alone is 200 million pounds, almost $400 million U.S. That's in a country one-fifth the size of ours. By contrast, the U.S. Congress has allocated less than $10 million for the public education program here. Industry groups say they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their own.
NORRIS: It is different organizations and groups that are trying to get various messages across. And no one is really coordinating this message.
ROSE: Mark Goldstein at the Government Accountability Office looked the situation. Goldstein concluded that the U.S. should have one single plan for the digital TV transition. And the GAO issued a report, saying the best agency to craft that plan is the Federal Communications Commission.
NORRIS: We explained that we felt it was their job as the nation's regulator of the airwaves that if anyone was in a position to take stronger action to ensure a smooth transition, they were the logical entity. But they did not agree with us.
ROSE: FCC Chairman Kevin Martin did not grant an interview for this story. The commission recently asked for $20 million for public education in the president's budget for the coming fiscal year.
At last week's photo-op at the Best Buy, Martin pointed out that the commission has asked Congress for money before.
NORRIS: There were several years that we had asked for money for education efforts and the Congress didn't give us any. If Congress gives us more - additional resources, then we will utilize those for education efforts.
ROSE: But it's the Commerce Department, not the FCC, that's in charge with the converter box coupon program. And Joel Kelsey of the Consumers Union suspects there is a reason no single government agency is rushing to lead the charge.
NORRIS: There's a lot of anticipated problems, and the consumers strife that's going to exist out there, no one really wants to be behind it. No one wants to pick up the ball and take charge because they don't want to have the blame levied on them.
ROSE: Conveniently, there will also be a new president in the White House in February of 2009, and the only thing harder than getting a TV signal with your old rabbit ears, maybe finding someone to blame when you can't.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.