WASHINGTON — In little over a year, more than 20 million homes that rely on antennas for free analog television broadcasting will suddenly go dark. And Sen. Claire McCaskill is already getting nervous.
"There is no anger that comes close to the anger of an American that cannot get television," said the Missouri Democrat.
The federal government is gearing up for Feb. 17, 2009, the day when TV stations will stop broadcasting analog signals, which means that those old rabbit ears and rooftop antennas will no longer work with analog TV sets.
Consumers then will have three options: They can buy new TV sets with digital tuners. They can connect to cable, satellite or pay television services. Or they can buy converter boxes for $60 to $70 that will allow them to receive digital broadcasts with their old analog TVs.
It's a long way off, but Uncle Sam wants you to start planning now.
To prepare for the change, Congress has signed off on a new $1.5 billion subsidy program aimed at making sure the nation's couch potatoes continue to get their viewing needs met. Come January, each U.S. household can apply for two $40 coupons to help buy the converter boxes.
Some members of Congress suggest buying a new TV as a holiday gift for that digitally-out-of-touch special someone in your life.
It's a huge undertaking for the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is preparing to distribute 33.5 million coupons. They'll start mailing them on Feb. 17, 2008, a year before the transition. Washington is eager to spread the message to the elderly and poor people in rural states, who are most likely to be affected.
In 2005, Congress passed the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act Congress, which mandated the switch from analog to digital. After two years of planning, federal officials say they're ready.
"The TV Converter Box Coupon Program is on schedule and will be ready to take consumers' coupon requests starting January 1, 2008, as directed by Congress," Acting NTIA Administrator Meredith Attwell Baker said at a news conference in Washington last week.
So far, eight of the largest consumer electronics retailers — Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart — have been certified to participate in the "TV Converter Box Coupon Program," along with more than 100 other retailers. They represent more than 14,000 stores throughout the country.
Like most everything on Capitol Hill, the program is kicking up a controversy.
A report released on Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office criticized the government's efforts, saying that there's "no comprehensive plan or strategy" for the digital transition and that a majority of Americans have no idea what's coming.
The report cited two recent surveys: The first, conducted by the Association for Public Television Stations, found in September that 51 percent of participants surveyed were unaware that the transition was taking place. The second, which focused on households that primarily receive their television signals over the air and therefore would be most affected by the change, found that 57 percent were unfamiliar with the transition.
The GAO report prompted an immediate rebuke from Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
Unless a comprehensive plan is put into place, Markey said, "tens of millions of consumers could be adversely affected and this important transition put needlessly in jeopardy."
Members of Congress have been sounding the alarm during public hearings at the Capitol.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., expressed fears that "there's a high potential for a train wreck here." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, worried that many of her constituents along the U.S.-Mexico border would be "looking at a snowy screen" because Mexican stations will continue analog broadcasting.
On the bright side, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that Americans can expect sharper pictures, crisper sounds and more channels after the transition. But he said he wants to make sure that the government spreads the word to hard-to-reach audiences on a regional basis, not just by relying on a national advertising campaign. "What works in Houston may not work in Honolulu," he said.
Federal officials say they're ready to go with a massive effort that'll include advertising at national events such as the Super Bowl and regional messages aimed at specific media markets. But they say that so far, the media has shown only modest interest in running stories about the upcoming coupon program, and they fear that their message will be even harder to deliver as crunch time comes in late 2008, right as Americans prepare to elect a president.
"I am really worried about this," said McCaskill, who estimates that one of every five Missourians is relying on analog broadcasting.
"Frankly, this scares me politically," she said, adding that it's members of Congress — not federal employees — who'll get blamed if things go wrong: "They're going to call me, and they're going to be mad."
CONVERTER BOX COUPONS
On Jan. 1, households can begin to take advantage of the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Its aim is to help consumers buy converters that will allow them to use analog television sets to view digital programming.
Between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, households will be able to request coupons while supplies last in one of four ways:
So far, Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Sears, Target, Wal-Mart have been certified to participate in the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, along with more than 100 other retailers. There are no income guidelines for eligibility.
The government will begin distributing coupons on Feb. 17, 2008, one year before the transition takes effect.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
ON THE WEB
For answers to more of your questions, go to: http://www.dtv.gov/consumercorner.html#faq1