Analog TV shutoff could leave Chicago homes in the "snow"

Posted by Mitchell - February 28, 2007 (entry 527)

Originally published in the Chicago Defender

by Andrew Baltazar
February 26, 2007

When you switch on your television two years from now, you better have a digital TV set or a subscription to cable or satellite. If you're still using those bunny ears, chances are your tube will display nothing but "snow."

On Feb. 17, 2009, the latest deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission, TV stations will cease over-the-air analog broadcasting and beam all programming in digital format. While the majority of Chicago residents subscribe to cable or satellite TV, many people still watch free over-the-air analog broadcasting, according to Mitchell Szczepanczyk, organizer for Chicago Media Action, an activist group on media issues.

"You're telling a fifth of all Chicagoans, 'You're not having anymore TV, unless you get cable, satellite or some digital converter box,'" Szczepanczyk said. "But to do that, they have to know that the transition is happening."

"I would be skeptical that most viewers are aware that the transition will happen," said Brian Dietz, vice president of communications for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

According to a survey conducted this month by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), 62 percent of Americans have no idea that analog broadcasting will be tuned out in 2009. Of the 38 percent who have heard about it, no one surveyed knew when it will happen.

This month, NCTA, NAB and the Consumer Electronics Association announced they will be partnering in a consumer education campaign to inform Americans about the transition. Over the next two years, they plan to run public service announcements, use point-of-purchase displays at retail stores and participate in town meetings, Dietz said. "We're going to invest a lot of time and effort in educating viewers about this."

Viewers who rely on over-the-air television - meaning they use an older TV with an antenna - must buy new equipment to receive programming in 2009, he said. "They have to have a newer digital television with a tuner that can receive the digital broadcast signals, or else they will need to obtain a digital-to-analog converter."

The price of the converter box has not yet been determined, but is expected to cost from $50 to $100. Congress has approved a federal subsidy program that will help offset the cost of the box. Each household is entitled to two $40 dollar vouchers.

Because they haven't received formal announcements about the converter box thus far, employees at electronics stores are finding it difficult to explain the transition to customers or to advise them about the equipment they will need to guarantee that their TVs continue to work.

"It's hard right now to communicate [about] it because the converter boxes aren't available," said Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas. "People don't really know what those will look like, what the pricing is going to be. Until we have something to offer people, it's hard to talk to them in conceptual terms about it."

Two years may not be enough time to inform the public and also provide them with resources to prepare for the transition, said Szczepanczyk. Education should have begun years ago. "We've got more people here who rely on over-the-air TV than in other communities, and it's certainly larger than the national average," he said.

Low-income families may deem the converter box as an unnecessary expense. If that happens, they could be left vulnerable to crime, inclement weather and disasters, he said. "It's forcing people to make a Catch-22: 'Do I need food or do I need a TV set?'"

Food and bills are important, but TVs serve as communications portals that are vital to ensuring their safety. Americans now own more TVs than radios, according to Szczepanczyk.

"We could potentially be dealing with people's lives. We could be setting ourselves up for a disaster because most Americans don't know what's coming," he said, referring to the communications and public service breakdowns that occurred during the 1995 Chicago heat wave, which led to hundreds of deaths.

Once in place, however, digital television would bring numerous benefits over traditional analog broadcasting. It allows for an increase in channels, programming and image quality, Dietz said.

"Switching over to digital tremendously opens up so many doors for content," said Sharon Ross, assistant professor at Columbia College's television department. "With a full digital spectrum, there's actually a lot of room for community access and a lot of free space that you can give over to local concerns and local programming." 

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