Conversion Won't Be Easy


No one likes to predict disasters but it will be a minor bureaucratic miracle if the consumer phase of the analog-to-digital conversion occurs without citizens hurling invectives at the federal government.

We'll try to be optimistic.

Still, a lot has to happen to pull it off. To the credit of some in Washington, it's starting to happen this month. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration on Sept. 25 plans a public event to explain the process by which the government will issue coupons to consumers that they can use to buy converter boxes for the non-digital TVs they have in their homes. Without that converter box (or a cable or satellite hook-up), after Feb. 17, 2009, that analog set will be worthless, a fact that we'd bet about 280 million consumers don't yet understand.

The day after the NTIA's conference, the FCC will hold its own education forum, and this one will give watchdog groups a chance to singe the commissioners for what they perceive as the slow pace of the consumer education effort. We have to applaud the FCC for agreeing to a meeting in which, we suppose, a goodly number of participants will call the commissioners knuckleheads for not starting an education campaign sooner.

Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of Consumer Electronics Association, won't be one of the naysayers. He doubts the transition will be much of a hassle at all, because, for one, equipment from satellite operators and most cable systems will obviate the problem. And besides, HDTV sets are virtually flying off the shelves, so there won't be many of those analog dinosaurs left. He doesn't even believe the government should have allocated the $1.5 billion it has to fund the conversion. Shapiro says critics “are trying to create a panic.”

One thing we're fairly certain of is that the publicity campaigns planned by the FCC, the NTIA, by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), by stations and networks, have to cover a lot of ground. Educating viewers about the conversion is not quite like explaining tax code, but because of all the variables, it can be confusing. The government also needs to take steps to assure that stores don't run out of the boxes and then try to “upsell” a consumer to buy a digital set.

There will be problems just because Americans love TV and want to make sure they're getting all they can. We suppose millions will go through the process of applying for and getting the coupons without knowing they're unneeded. Nielsen recently revised its count and now says there are 112.8 million TV homes in the U.S. Only 20 million homes get their TV signal via antenna they're the only ones who will really need the government's box.

Starting Jan. 1, all households can start getting ready for the analog switch by requesting up to two coupons to be used toward the purchase of two digital-to-analog conversion boxes. The coupons are worth $40 each. The converter boxes on the market cost between $50 to $80. We expect consumers won't like this idea of paying a cent, even if Shapiro's correct, and they'll only be getting coupons so their old Zenith in the basement still picks up local channels.

But like it or not, the switch to digital has begun. It's in everyone's interest to make sure it doesn't end badly.