Correction: The story misidentifies the agency offering a coupon program. The program will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Department of Commerce.
In a little more than 14 months, millions of television sets that rely on antennas will fade to black unless they are tuned into one of the country's biggest transitions in broadcast history.
Under federal law, TV broadcasters must shut off their analog signals starting Feb. 18, 2009. Those analog airwaves will then be used for improved emergency broadcasting systems as well as allow broadband providers, such as cellphone operators, to offer more services to consumers.
So what does this mean for the owners of analog TV sets who are using "rabbit ears"? Unless these viewers are prepared for the pending change to digital, they will be staring at blank TV screens on the first day of the switch.
To avoid such a scenario, the private and public sectors are scrambling to get the word out and have recently launched educational outreach efforts to inform viewers.
The cable industry has committed $200 million toward an English and Spanish outreach media campaign.
"Most of us have extra TVs in our home or, more importantly, we have relatives and friends who still use rabbit ears [TV antennas]," says Susan Gonzales, senior director of federal government and external affairs at Comcast, who is helping lead the outreach efforts to diverse communities. "To be clear, if a TV is connected to cable, that TV should work fine after the transition."
If not, Ms. Gonzales says viewers will need to either purchase a digital converter box from a certified retailer that will allow them to continue watching broadcast channels on their analog sets. Or, they can pay for cable or satellite service or buy a digital television.
For its part, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is hoping to ensure a static-free transition by launching one of its largest education campaigns ever. In September, the FCC kicked off the first of a series of consumer education workshops. This month, the agency's classes will focus on minority and non-English speaking communities, with Spanish-language outreach being a large part of the education program. The FCC has set up a Web site with information on the switch. To help ease the transition, the FCC has promised to give away two $40 coupons per household to help pay for digital converter boxes. The subsidy program is scheduled to start in January 2008.
One of the biggest challenges facing the FCC is making consumers aware, especially those who are non-English speakers, of the analog-to-digital switch. A survey released in January by the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) found that 61 percent of respondents didn't know about the upcoming digital transition.
"We are focusing much of our effort on consumers that are harder to reach, including those for whom English is not their first language," says Rosemary Kimball, a spokeswoman for the FCC, which says many Spanish-speaking households rely heavily on over-the-air broadcast.
In October, the APTS and PBS mounted a 16-month-long education campaign to inform TV viewers about the digital switch. The private sector, which includes the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, has banded together to also inform viewers about the pending transition.
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