Dark times feared for TV digital switch

Times Staff Writer

Millions of TV sets that rely on antennas may go dark in a little more than 18 months, and the government needs to do much more to help people who own them see the light, senators said Thursday.

“I think there’s high potential for a train wreck here,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told Federal Communications Commission and Commerce Department officials during a hearing on the transition to digital-only signals.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups have become increasingly concerned that the government isn’t doing enough to educate the approximately 20% of U.S. households -- 1 million in Los Angeles alone -- that receive only over-the-air TV.


Under federal law, stations must turn off their analog signals Feb. 18, 2009.

Cable and satellite systems have promised to convert the signal for old analog TVs, but people who don’t subscribe to those services and don’t have digital TV sets will need converter boxes.

Democrats appear poised to push for more money and public service announcements to prepare TV owners. U.S. officials have budgeted $5 million to tell people about the switch and coupons that will cover most of the cost of a no-frills converter box. The coupons will be available Jan. 1 on a first-come, first-served basis.

The government is relying on the television industry and consumer electronics makers to do the bulk of the public education, and so far “their efforts have yielded few results,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii).

A survey released in January by the Assn. of Public Television Stations found that 61% of respondents were unaware of the pending digital switch.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said that without a better education effort, the government could have “a disaster on our hands.”

Government officials said that funds were limited but that they expected awareness to rise as public and private education efforts ramped up.


“We have more work to do,” said John Kneuer, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department, which will run the $1.5-billion converter box coupon program.

Federal officials have set up a website,, and a toll-free number, (888) 388-2009, to answer questions about the coupons and transition.

Inouye promised Thursday to take action on the public education effort after listening to complaints from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and AARP, the organization for seniors. The groups are concerned that many poor and isolated people will be left without TV signals.

Inouye did not say what steps he was considering.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin has requested $1.5 million from Congress for additional outreach.

Congress also may press broadcasters to do more to educate TV viewers through public service announcements. Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) have suggested that the FCC consider requiring TV stations to run those announcements.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters is creating several public service announcements and will devote free airtime worth tens of millions of dollars starting in December, said Dennis Wharton, the trade group’s executive vice president.


He noted that broadcasters had the most at stake if people couldn’t watch their stations.

“There’s no question there’s a staggering lack of information about this transition, and it’s our job to try to correct that,” he said.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said politicians would bear the brunt of the outrage if TVs went blank.

“They’re not going to call you,” she told Kneuer and Cathy Seidel, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. “They’re going to call me, and they’re going to be mad.”

“When people start calling in,” McCaskill said, “I’m giving them your numbers.”




How to prepare for digital TV

From Jan. 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009, all U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of as many as two digital-to-analog converter boxes. Beginning in January, call (888) 388-2009 or go to to request your coupons.


*--* If your TV And you get your set is programming from You will need by Feb. 17, 2009 Analog Over the air Digital-to-analog converter box Analog Cable or satellite Service provider will address Digital Over the air Nothing Digital Cable or satellite Service provider will address