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Digital TV Transition: Lost in Translation?

Kim Hart

I got several emails over the weekend in response to the story that ran on Saturday about how Spanish-speakers and Spanish-language stations are handling the upcoming switch to digital television.

Many of the surveys and research done lately indicate that awareness of the transition continues to rise. Now the big hurdle is making sure TV viewers know what to do about it. In a lot of cases, that means making sure consumers--no matter which language they speak--know how to order a converter box, or know how to tell whether they have a digital TV.

Confusion still surrounds low-powered stations and how they'll be affected by the transition. A lot of cultural programming and minority-owned stations are low-powered, which means their signals reach a smaller coverage area. Unlike full-powered stations (i.e., the major networks), low-powered stations aren't yet required to shut off their analog signals and upgrade to digital (although some are doing so on their own). So over-the-air viewers will still be able to get the low-powered stations after the transition, although they'll lose the more mainstream channels that go all-digital.

That also means that those viewers who upgrade their equipment--by getting a converter box or a digital TV set--won't be able to receive the low-powered stations unless they get a box with an analog pass-through feature. This will allow viewers to receive both digital and analog signals. (Some of these boxes are now available in retail stores as well as online).

Of course, Spanish-speakers aren't the only ones who will be affected by the transition. In San Francisco, for example, a special emphasis has been put on Asian languages. In that city, nearly 30 percent of the over-the-air households speak Chinese. Nearly one-fifth of all households are Asian. KTSF, channel 26 in San Francisco, broadcasts programming in 10 languages, ranging from Laotian to Filipino to Korean.

While many viewers are bilingual, they still enjoy watching dramas and newscasts in their first languages about their own countries, said KTSF general manager Mike Sherman. A big concern is helping the senior population with the digital switch, since they are often more dependent on over-the-air programming and are less technologically savvy.

Most multi-lingual broadcasters are making big pushes to educate their viewers about the transition. Progress has surely been made: nearly half of the total calls to order a converter box coupon go to the Spanish hotline, and Puerto Rico residents are ordering and redeeming the coupons in record numbers, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration says. The transition is less than seven months away, so we can expect an even bigger push to come soon.

By Kim Hart  |  July 22, 2008; 7:05 AM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

What's fun is trying to find out if stations that send their signals over translator networks (as in Utah) are going digital on the translators (most of which are low power). Can't find anything on the website of, say, KUTV about it's transition to digital, or whether it's going digital statewide.

So Dad just bought a converter box and, whaddaya know, all the Utah stations are broadcasting digital where he lives in Cedar City.

But you have to buy the converter box to find out.

Posted by: wiredog | July 22, 2008 8:25 AM


It would be very useful to Washington Post readers if you could publish a list of low-power TV stations in the D.C. metro area, and indicate whether each station intends to go digital, has done so already, or plans to stay analog after 2/17/09.

Posted by: SSMD | July 22, 2008 4:29 PM

I got 2 coupons and used one. I let the other lapse, but now I do have a use for it. The government sent me a reply that's too bad, no new coupon.

Posted by: Ed | July 23, 2008 8:37 AM

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