In less than nine months, 30 million Americans could find themselves staring at a blank television screen.
On Feb. 17, the United States launches an ambitious digital-TV transition, requiring all full-power broadcast stations to scrap their analog transmissions in favor of digital-only signals. The move is designed to free up the airwaves for emergency services, wireless broadband and cell-phone TV, but for analog-only TV viewers who fail to prepare for the conversion, Feb. 17 might feel like a real-life, couch-potato Y2K: the day Grey’s Anatomy and Dancing With the Stars disappear from our prime-time schedules.
But the implications of the digital transition extend far beyond consumer viewing patterns into a shake-up of the retail-electronics industry, a new era for cable companies and the threat of an environmental nightmare caused by millions of Americans discarding their old sets at the same time.
While information about the upcoming shift continually pops up in PSAs, television-station scrolls and a host of websites, surveys indicate that the American populace is thoroughly confused about the change. It’s symptomatic of how ineffective the government’s educational effort has been that research shows polar extremes of misinformation. On one hand, 61 percent of those who’ll have at least one TV affected by the transition wrongly believe they won’t be affected, according to a January survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. On the other, the same survey also shows that 24 percent of respondents wrongly believe they will need to throw away all their analog sets to adapt.
As a result, it’s fair to say that television viewers in the United States are both overly concerned and not concerned enough about the digital-TV transition.
Here are the facts: The transition will not affect TVs with digital tuners or high-definition sets; it will not affect TVs with cable service or satellite transmission; it will not affect TVs connected to digital-to-analog converter boxes. The only TVs affected by the move will be analog-only sets that use antennas or rabbit ears to pick up free broadcast stations.
Even if you own one of those sets, you have plenty of options between now and Feb. 17. The thriftiest course is to take advantage of a government-sponsored coupon program to buy a converter box for your set. A more expensive option would be to subscribe to cable (while cable companies don’t suggest that this is the only recourse for analog-only viewers, they predictably recommend it). The final, shoot-the-moon option would be to see the upcoming conversion as a good excuse to plunk down four figures for a new set, preferably one of those high-definition, flat-screen, plasma monstrosities.
Among media observers, there’s an unsettling sense that the information is not reaching its intended targets. In February, the Nielsen Co. released a survey that lends credence to those concerns. Nielsen found that more than 10 percent of American households would have no access to television signals if the conversion happened immediately.
The most striking data from the survey concerned the transition’s impact on various ethnic and racial groups. While 8.8 percent of whites will be affected by the conversion, nearly twice as many Latinos – a whopping 17.3 percent – will be affected. Nielsen found that Latinos would be the ethnic group most affected by the switch, by a large margin.
If Congress and the FCC had their way, we’d already be in the post-analog age. Aware that digital technology was taking over, in 1996 they set a target date of Dec. 31, 2006, for broadcasters to abandon their analog signals and convert to digital. The market responded to the digital revolution more slowly than expected, however, and Congress adjusted with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which established a firm deadline of Feb. 17, 2009.
Even though this plan has been in the offing for more than a decade, for many armchair quarterbacks the move feels sudden and unnecessary. An April 2005 MSNBC piece on the digital transition (The End of Analog TV) drew several angry responses, with respondents blaming electronics companies for not moving quickly enough to phase out analog sets and make digital TVs affordable, and the government for pushing people to buy converters and wasting money on converter-coupon subsidies that could be better used to address issues of hunger and inadequate health care. Some readers fretted about the prospect of an environmental mess, with millions of old TVs probably headed for dump sites.
So why is this problematic transition essential?
“The digital spectrum is a much more efficient use of the spectrum,” says Rosemary Kimball, director of media relations for the Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau of the FCC. “It’s sort of like the march of technology. The analog spectrum is what television broadcasters have used since television started, and that spectrum that’s being reclaimed from them is particularly good for fire, police, first responders, that type of thing. So a lot of that spectrum is going to be given to them. And the digital spectrum that the broadcasters will be operating on is much better for television – much better sound and picture quality.”
While Kimball notes that FCC reps are “trying to do what we can and traveling all over the country to talk to people,” Congress allocated a paltry $5 million in public funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for public education on the digital transfer, with the FCC requesting an additional $1.5 million, meaning that the government has depended largely on broadcasters and retailers to get the word out. Consumers Union, in its report on the DTV conversion, noted that the United Kingdom plans to spend $400 million on its public-education campaign, more than 60 times what the U.S. government is committing.
Unfortunately, the word isn’t getting out accurately to the people who will be most affected by the switch: those who rely on over-the-air broadcasting in the first place. The Florida Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, a nonprofit citizens advocacy group, released a report in February detailing the problem with relying on retailers for information. As the report notes, the clerks either don’t know what’s going on, or they are trying to sell consumers equipment they don’t need.
For the study, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group sent secret shoppers to retailers in 10 states, including Florida. They found that 81 percent of the staff didn’t know or gave inaccurate information about analog-to-digital converter boxes, 78 percent of the staff gave bad information about the federal government’s program to help people buy converter boxes, and 42 percent of the staff didn’t know the date of the transition to digital.
In Florida, the results were even worse. Here, 100 percent of staff at sampled retail stores gave inaccurate information about converter boxes, and the same percentage gave wrong information about the coupon program. FPIRG also found that 20 percent of the stores tried to up-sell the secret shoppers equipment they didn’t need.
The good news is that in Central Florida, broadcasters are actually being proactive about informing viewers. Here broadcasters are planning tests that will help “flush out” analog-only users and make them aware that big changes are coming.
According to a May 8 story in TV Week, 11 stations in this area will band together to black out their over-the-air analog signals. After screens go blank for a few seconds, the stations will broadcast a graphic directing viewers to sources of information about the switch to digital. The first such test is scheduled for 7:59 p.m. June 25.
“To the best of our knowledge, the marketwide test we’re proposing has not been utilized or attempted by any other alliance of broadcasters in the country,” TV Week quotes Richard Monn, WESH-TV’s chief engineer and spokesman for the consortium of stations, as saying.
Congress put the NTIA in charge of the government’s coupon program, which provides up to two $40 coupons per household for the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter box. The boxes generally range in price from $50 to $70. The coupons expire 90 days after issuance and can be obtained by calling 1-888-388-2009.
If the FCC’s public-education role has been minimal on the DTV transition, the Commission has taken an aggressive stance with regard to the sale of analog-only TVs. Beginning on March 1, 2007, all TVs imported into the United States or shipped between states are required to have digital tuners, and any analog-only sets sold by retailers have to contain labels informing the consumer that the set will soon be obsolete.
In April, the FCC handed down 11 fines against companies who violated these rules. They targeted Circuit City, Wal-Mart, Fry’s Electronics, Target, Best Buy and CompUSA for failing to place labels on analog-only products, with Sears Holdings Corp. (parent company of Kmart and Sears, Roebuck) receiving a particularly hefty fine of $1.09 million. The obvious message to retailers is that while they can sell their remaining analog-only inventory, they must do so only after warning consumers away from them.
With an estimated 19 million households owning at least one analog-only television, it’s reasonable to assume that the looming conversion deadline will spur many consumers to purchase new TVs. That will result in a glut of old sets ready to be discarded, and the danger that tons of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other toxins could be headed to a landfill near you.
“We think that millions of people all across the country will be tossing their old analog televisions out on Feb. 17, or somewhere close to it. Without any comprehensive, nationwide, free, convenient and responsible recycling programs in place for those TVs, we think that many of them will end up in landfills in Texas, illegal dumps across the country and across the world,” says Zac Trahan, program assistant at the environmental group Texas Campaign for the Environment.
“Sony has been the only `company` to offer free recycling for their products nationwide,” he adds. “Some other companies are following state laws that require them to recycle in various states.”
Trahan argues that if producers and manufacturers are responsible for recycling their own products, they’ll have a “bottom-line profit incentive” to design products with recycling in mind. “It saves tax dollars, too,” Trahan says.
A version of this story appeared originally in the San Antonio Current. Additional reporting by Bob Whitby.email@example.com