Checking Up on the DTV Conversion
Earlier this week, the Consumer Electronics Association held its annual Washington Forum, a multi-day gabfest on tech-policy issues. With less than a year to go before the shutoff of most analog TV broadcasts, the digital-TV transition was Topic A this year.
I spent a good chunk of Wednesday and Thursday at this event, looking to see how things are going with that. I was particularly interested in two DTV topics: the cheap converter boxes that let old analog sets receive digital over-the-air (i.e., not cable) broadcasts, and the $40 coupons the government is handing out to subsidize their purchase.
At a panel discussion Thursday morning--featuring representatives from the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, plus the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association--and during a luncheon speech by NTIA Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Meredith Baker, I got a little more context about the transition.
The biggest obstacle remains a lack of information, something my colleague Kim Hart chronicled in a front-page story on Monday.
The NAB's Jonathan Collegio professed optimism, saying in the panel discussion that the group's polls indicated that 83 percent of the households relying on over-the-air broadcasts were "aware" of the DTV transition and that "increasing numbers" could recite the analog-shutdown date, Feb. 17, 2009. (Call me a cynic, but "increasing numbers" usually means "less than half.")
There is still plenty of time, and everyone at the panel talked about plans to step up their marketing and education efforts--online, in TV ads, in stores, in the mail and in person. FCC Media Bureau chief Monica Desai, for example, noted that the commission's DTV pamphlet has just been translated into Navajo, on top of all the other languages it's available.
It's also unclear just how many analog sets will actually wind up getting connected to one of these boxes. In her speech, the NTIA's Baker said that only 13 percent of households rely on over-the-air broadcasts. But the NCTA's Rob Stoddard said in the panel discussion that 25 percent of "connected" households that pay for TV have at least one TV at home that isn't hooked up to any such service. Many of those screens are only used as monitors for DVD players or video-game consoles, but others are plugged into over-the-air antennas and will need a converter box.
When I've tested these boxes--one from Philips, the other from LG--I've had great results in each test. I've also heard good reports from readers and other reviewers, and the folks at the panel expected that viewers nationwide would be happy as well--Collegio called digital TV "the rebirth of broadcast television."
(As an aside: During the luncheon, Baker took a moment to quote the glowing review of a converter box that one reader posted on this blog, calling yours truly out by name. It's can be a little weird when the people you cover compliment your work--as a journalist, that makes you worry that you're not being hard enough on these people!)
Many readers, however, still seem to think that they'll have to get cable, just because their analog reception is so awful. Those folks might be surprised to know that Stoddard said he expects cable and satellite firms to pick up only one to two million households as a result of the digital transition.
Finally, during her speech Baker provided some numbers on the government's $40 coupons--which look more like credit cards. She said about 9.5 million of these have been requested, 3.5 million have been mailed out and almost 293,000 have been redeemed in stores so far. If you haven't done so yet, you can order one online at dtv2009.gov or calling 888-388-2009. (Curious about a "security certificate" error your browser may report when you visit that page? See this Sunday's Help File.)
Have you picked up one of those coupons? What's your experience been redeeming it in a store, then using the box it helped buy?
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