Mar 1, 2008

Coalition pushes to get the word out on digital TV transition

LANSING -- By this time next year, some 1.5 million Michigan residents in 600,000 households will wake up and turn on the local news and see a blank TV screen if they haven't made a crucial adjustment.

On Feb. 17, 2009, television will change dramatically when TV stations complete the federally mandated transition from analog to digital television broadcasting, and those 1.5 million residents who receive their signals via a TV antenna and rabbit ears who do not have a digital set will see a blank screen.

“This will effect every single household in America, and it is less than a year away,” said Rob Stoddard, a senior vice president for communications and public affairs for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

It will not be as catastrophic as many people think, but Stoddard said it’s absolutely necessary that the word gets out with all the facts. TV viewers will have three ways to ensure the 2006 federal law will not cause TV screens to go blank. TV viewers who subscribe to a cable, satellite or phone company service -- the majority of TV viewers -- will not have to do anything to get a normal signal no matter what kind of TV set they have.

People who receive their signal over the air can purchase a new TV set with a built-in digital tuner. The third way is to purchase a DTV converter box that plugs into your existing analog TV set. A converter box will allow viewers to receive free television signals.

The federal government is providing a $40 coupon to purchase a converter box that will allow people to receive free TV reception. Stoddard said the boxes sell for $40-$70 depending on the quality you want, and each household is eligible to receive two coupons.

The coupons are available right now, and a coalition called the DTV Transition Coalition, consisting of groups from the AARP to the FCC, has established a Web site at where people can apply for the coupons.

Industry experts say DTV will ensure better service, provide a dramatically better picture, better sound quality and allow TV stations to provide several channels of programming at once.

The kinks and glitches are still being worked out, and one is a situation with Low Power Television (LPTV) service, which is operated in rural areas and by nonprofit groups. A special pass-through converter box will be needed to receive that signal.

“They are not required to transition to DTV, and at the same time we are telling people to get the boxes,” Stoddard said.

The DTV Coalition said the majority of people who still receive over-the-air signals are the poor and elderly, and a nationwide transition could served as fertile ground for scam artists selling expensive, faulty converter boxes, charging high prices for unneeded instillation and talking people into buying unneeded new TV sets.

The coalition and other industry groups have donated billions of dollars and airtime to get the word out on the transition. Public service commercials are already being aired, and they will intensify as the transition day comes closer.

Michigan residents are already seeing the effects of the move to digital TV with the decision by one of the largest cable providers in the state, Comcast, to move the public access channels -- known as the public, education and government (PEG) channels –- into the 900-level digital range. This would put the channels out of reach of people with analog televisions before the Feb. 17. 2009 date unless they purchase a digital converter box.

Local, state and federal officials have reacted to complaints by the public. In separate rulings, both federal and state judges have ruled against Comcast and at least temporarily blocked the station moves to the digital range. Additionally, Senate Democrats introduced Senate Resolution 140, which encourages cable companies to keep those stations at their existing, lower-tier location so residents can continue to access those stations at no additional cost.

Rep. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, introduced House Resolution 245 and Concurrent Resolution 64 that also seeks the same result, as well as co-sponsoring House Bill 5667 that ensures all cable subscribers will be able to access PEG channels until February 17, 2009, with no special equipment.

Because oversight of cable TV is a federal issue, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, is also addressing the PEG issue. He is one of the co-authors of the Communications Act that Comcast is operating under, as well as the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and as such he has put the Comcast CEO on notice that the company’s actions are inconsistent with the act.

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