Some will be left behind in digital-TV shift
For millions of Americans, the digital revolution might not be televised. One in five U.S. households depends on rabbit ears or a rooftop...
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — For millions of Americans, the digital revolution might not be televised.
One in five U.S. households depends on rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna to watch TV. Without converter boxes, most of their sets will go blank the day in 2009 that federal law requires broadcast stations to turn off analog signals and transmit only in digital.
The shift is being hailed as broadcast television's most dramatic upgrade since it bloomed to color from black and white a half-century ago.
The technology gives free TV viewers vastly sharper pictures and a wider range of channels from ABC, PBS and the other networks.
The 80 percent of Americans with cable or satellite service won't be affected by the change.
If you have an old TV hooked up to an antenna, you need only buy a converter box, which will probably cost about $50. The federal government is going to hand out subsidies — and you have two years to prepare.
Civil-rights leaders and lawmakers are uneasy anyway.
A recent poll found that 61 percent of people who rely on broadcast TV aren't aware of the digital shift. What's more, about half of households without cable or satellite service have incomes under $30,000, and blacks and Hispanics are more likely to receive only over-the-air TV than whites.
The worry isn't that people will miss vital episodes of "American Idol." It's all about staying connected.
Even today, with news a 24/7 affair on the Internet and pay TV, nearly two-thirds of viewers say broadcast news is the main way they find out what's going on in the world.
"When I walk into peoples' houses, they're tuned into the news," said Alex Nogales, president of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, who is testifying on the digital-TV transition before a House subcommittee Wednesday. "Am I concerned that our community is going to be left out? Of course."
Federal law requires broadcast stations to turn off analog signals and transmit only in digital on Feb. 18, 2009.
TV networks, cable providers and consumer-electronics makers have joined to raise public awareness through Web sites and an estimated tens of millions of dollars of televised public-service announcements to begin airing next year.
The Commerce Department plans to give most anyone who applies a $40 coupon to buy a no-frills converter box — limit two per household. The department has budgeted nearly $1.5 billion, enough for about 34 million converters. But an estimated 70 million TVs are hooked up to antennas, including extra sets in homes with cable and satellite.
For broadcasters, who base their advertising rates on the number of viewers watching, the transition looms as the dawn of a new digital era — and a potential financial disaster.
"The last thing we want is a train wreck on Feb. 18 of 2009," said Dennis Wharton, vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Broadcasters are eager for the switch. They think viewers will buy digital sets to receive high-definition programming and the additional channels the technology allows them to air.
Stations also will significantly cut their energy costs because they won't have to transmit both analog and digital signals, as they do now.
Once TV has gone digital, a big patch of the analog airwaves will go for free to public-safety organizations so that hey can improve their communications systems.
The rest will be auctioned off by the government, with major telecommunications companies such as AT&T and possibly even Web giants such as Google expected to pay as much as $10 billion to use it for wireless high-speed Internet service.
Digital-TV sets are sharp enough to make the new broadcast signals look great, and the Consumer Electronics Association said sales of digital TVs outpaced analog sets for the first time last year. Plus, their prices are dropping — standard digital TVs are projected to average $901 this year and high-definition sets $1,150.
Some of the TV watchers who will have to make the transition are known as cable rejecters who can afford pay television but choose not to get it.
But many people haven't chosen to skip the digital-TV revolution — they haven't been able to afford it.
A 2005 Government Accountability Office survey found 48 percent of households with only over-the-air TV had annual incomes of less than $30,000, compared with 29 percent of those with cable or satellite service.
The federal government's plan to raise public awareness has been criticized as inadequate. The administration is budgeting only $5 million to notify nearly 300 million Americans about the transition. By way of comparison, the German city of Berlin spent $1 million to notify its 3.4 million residents of a similar shift in 2004.
Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, is worried that people who need the converter-box coupons will be the last to learn about them.
"Like some science-fiction nightmare, the news they watch, the programs that actually keep them company and let them know what is happening in the world, could — poof — disappear," she said.