Front pageTV switch to have big local impact
Houston among cities with high percentage of analog-only sets
By BRAD HEM
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 21, 2008, 11:29PM
Houston's high percentage of analog television viewers means the city will be one of the most affected when television broadcasters switch their signals to digital on Feb. 17, 2009.
Of 2 million Houston households with TVs, about 467,000 — or nearly 23 percent — are analog-only, meaning they get their programming over the air through an antenna on the roof or rabbit ears on their sets, according to Consumers Union and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley also stand to be more affected than most cities in other parts of the country.
Because low-income and minority residents tend to rely more on over-the-air analog signals for their TVs, they will be affected at greater rates, the groups said.
Also, some Spanish speakers and other foreign-language speakers watch low-power broadcast television stations that aren't required to switch to digital next year. Those viewers have limited options for digital converter boxes and need to pay special attention before buying one, said Joel Kelsey, a policy advocate at Consumers Union, the parent of Consumer Reports.
"To a large extent, this is an economics issue," said Mark Lloyd, an official at the civil rights group. "Our focus is not only on minorities. It's also on the elderly and people with disabilities."
With less than a year until the digital conversion, government and industry groups recently have increased their advertising and public service announcements to make consumers aware the switch is coming, but Kelsey said millions remain confused about what they need to do, if anything.
Some think they need to buy expensive high-definition TVs. Some think their analog TVs need to be replaced with digital models. Some think they need to subscribe to cable or some other pay-TV service.
None of those steps is necessary.
"All of these things could cost consumers a significant amount of money if they walk into a retailer without better information," Kelsey said.
First, the "DTV conversion" refers to "digital television." That refers the type of signal transmitted to the TV and is different from HDTV, the expensive newer models that provide better picture and sound.
Consumers don't need to subscribe to Comcast cable, AT&T's U-verse or satellite to be ready for the switch. However, pay-TV subscribers won't have to worry regardless of whether they have an analog or digital TV, or whether the signal comes from a set-top box or directly into a cable-ready set. They'll be fine.
The only people who will have to act are those in households that watch over-the-air TV on analog sets. Replacing an analog set with a new digital TV — remember, not necessarily an HDTV — would solve the problem, but the cheaper alternative is to buy a digital converter box. They're available at major retailers.
One key point: Even if you buy a converter box, you'll still need your antenna to keep getting programs.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is giving away $40 coupons to limit the cost to consumers. More information and links to request coupons are at www.dtv2009.gov
. Each household can receive up to two coupons.
As of Wednesday, 263,000 households in Texas had requested coupons, according the agency.
A $40 coupon may not cover the cost of a converter box because prices vary, and Lloyd criticized Congress over the money allocated for coupons.
But consumers also bear some responsibility for knowing what kind of boxes they need. There are 42 different models certified by the agency. Just four of those are capable of continuing to pass old-fashioned analog signals through to the TV set.
That will be important for consumers who want to continue watching low-power foreign-language programming, who will need those special boxes but might not know it, Lloyd said.
"Most people have no idea whether they're watching full-power or low-power," he said.
Houston-based LAT TV, which operates low-power analog programming in Houston on Channel 30 (KCVH) as well as in San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Phoenix, has been running digital conversion commercials 10 times a day to make sure viewers are aware, said Patricia Torres-Burd, the company's executive vice president of programming and branding.
While she said the switch can be confusing, Torres-Burd said she thinks people will figure it out in time. Her biggest concern is consumers who wait until the last minute to request coupons and then can't get them quickly.
"I've already ordered mine," she said.
CHANGING CHANNELSWhat's this DTV switch?
On Feb. 17, 2009, television broadcasters will stop sending analog signals and switch to digital signals.Do I need to do anything?
That depends. You don't have to do anything if you have cable or another pay-TV service, or already have a digital TV, whether or not it's high-definition.
But if you are one of the more than 467,000 Houston households that gets programming over-the-air through an antenna and on an analog TV, you'll at least need to buy a digital converter box. You also could buy a digital TV or subscribe to a pay service, but those options will cost more.
For more details, check www.dtv.gov
.Are the boxes expensive?
Most cost less than $100, and many are closer to half that. The federal government is giving away $40 coupons — up to two per household, but only one can be used per box — to help defray the cost. To request a coupon, call 1-888-388-2009 or go to www.dtv2009.gov
Source: National Telecommunications and Information Administrationhttp://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/5561142.html