Digital TV woes abound, but local stations on track

The Baltimore Sun

President-elect Barack Obama's call for a delay in next month's conversion from analog to digital TV appears to be gaining support, although local television stations are still preparing for the Feb. 17 switch that has been in the works for more than a decade.

As directed by Congress during the Clinton administration, broadcast TV stations in the U.S. - that is, those that can be received without a cable or satellite system - will be switching their transmission signals from the traditional analog to digital. Sets equipped with digital tuners, as well as those connected to cable or satellite systems, should be able to display programming. But people who depend on indoor or outdoor antennas for reception will need to attach their televisions to a converter box, available at most electronics and big-box stores for $40 to $70.

Stations have spent recent months warning viewers about the change. But a government-run program, offering $40 coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes, was recently halted after the $1.34 billion allotted for it ran out. People who request coupons are now being put on a waiting list, and coupons will be sent out as they become available (if unused, they expire after 90 days).

The vast majority of homes are prepared for the conversion, broadcasters say. Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of WBAL-TV, Channel 11, says fewer than 10 percent of Baltimore households depend on antennas. But the elderly and the poor may be most affected by the change because they rely more heavily on free, over-the-air reception. Taking away their ability to watch television could turn the transition into a political wrangle.

"A lot of people don't own computers," Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat, said. "They use their televisions as a window to the world."

John Podesta, co-chair of Obama's transition team, sent a letter to Congress last week urging that the transition be delayed. He noted that 1.1 million people are on the waiting list for coupons and projected the number could increase to 5 million by early February.

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed," he wrote, "I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date."

"While details are not known, the least among us - poor, minorities, elderly, single parent families, unemployed or underemployed, isolated homes in rural areas - will bear the brunt of the impending black out," the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research said last night in a statement urging a delay in the conversion.

"We are talking about the certainty, not just possibility, of millions of TVs not working in American households come mid-February," said Larry F. Darby, a senior fellow at the nonprofit group. "Consumers and voters will be outraged and want to know why and who is to blame. Never mind the inevitable finger pointing, nobody in Washington will escape their wrath."

Few broadcasters went on record opposing the date change, but neither did they heartily endorse it.

A statement from CBS, parent company of WJZ-TV, Channel 13, said, "CBS is open to the suggestion from the President-elect's Transition Team, as we have been to any suggestion that makes the digital transition easier for our viewers. We look forward to working with the new Administration and Congress to that end."

WBAL's Wertlieb said, "We understand why people are concerned about folks not being prepared, but we believe that the broadcasters are prepared, and that the majority of the public is prepared."

While not endorsing any delay, Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is a senior member of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, has drafted legislation that would increase the number of coupons that can be issued and allow them to be sent via speedier first-class mail.

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, a Democrat and chair of the council's urban affairs and aging committee, said she and many of her constituents have asked for coupons but have yet to receive them.

"With the economy like this," said Welch, who supports the delay, "they can't afford [a converter] without a coupon."

But Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin warned Saturday that changing the date would be unfair to the broadcasters who have invested so much time and money in the transition, and could further confuse the public.

If the deadline is changed, "one concern is that whatever date we pick ... people won't believe it," Martin said at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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