Lawmakers worry about TV change

Less than two months since his last appearance on Capitol Hill, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin on Tuesday once again assured hand-wringing lawmakers that the nation’s transition to all-digital television is on track.

While commending Martin and National Technical Information Administration acting chief Meredith Baker for their efforts so far, numerous members of the Senate Commerce Committee expressed concerns about whether enough is being done to inform viewers most at risk of losing TV reception and whether a government subsidy program will be sufficient.

Martin agreed to provide monthly updates on the status of the transition, and Baker announced that at least one rule of the subsidy program would be relaxed to help some viewers.

The hearing focused on the mandated switch to DTV, slated for Feb. 17, 2009, when broadcasters will cease all analog transmission in favor of all digital. Viewers who have either a digital TV or an analog set connected to a cable or satellite system will not be affected. But the estimated 15 million U.S. homes that have analog sets relying on over-the-air transmission will experience blank screens unless hooked to a digital-to-analog converter box.

The NTIA, which is part of the Dept. of Commerce, is supervising a program of $40 coupons that consumers can request and use to defray the expense of the converter boxes, expected to cost between $50 and $70. The program allows two coupons per household.

But committee members cited reports that many Americans still don’t know that either the DTV switch is coming or what to do about it. They also questioned whether the NTIA will have enough coupons for everyone who will need one, and whether it was a good idea to require that coupons be redeemed within a 90-day period, after which they expire.

Martin pointed to positive news from the Assn. of Public Television Stations, which recently released a survey showing that in the past three months, consumer awareness of the DTV switch had grown from 51% to 76%.

He acknowledged that more work needs to be done, since the survey also showed that 17.5% of people who know the transition is coming still don’t know what they have to do in order to keep their TV sets working. About 10% said they didn’t think they have to do anything.

Martin also noted that certain demographics are most at risk — such as seniors and Hispanic homes — and that the FCC has worked with more than 3,000 senior centers in 44 states to let them know what they need to do. He said the commission is also working with Univision to reach the 16% of over-the-air-dependent homes that are Hispanic.

Implying the success of NTIA’s educational efforts, Baker reported that more than 10 million coupons have been requested since the program went into effect on Jan. 1. Baker said that amount “represents approximately 46% of the program’s base funding.”

“Approximately 48% of these households identified themselves as fully reliant on over-the-air television,” Baker said.

Some 1,100 retailers with more than 11,000 outlets in all 50 states are participating in the program by carrying or planning to carry converter boxes, Baker added.

But lawmakers from rural states, like Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, said their constituents are disproportionately vulnerable to not getting enough information or help about the transition. “What kind of fall-back plan do you have?” asked Stevens, suggesting there will be viewers who will be perplexed when their analog TV sets no longer work.

Martin replied that the FCC’s focus is on ensuring all viewers survive the transition. He said he’s in favor of Democratic commissioner Michael Copps’ suggestion that the FCC test the transition in one market before the national switch.

Martin said he would comply with Stevens’ request for monthly updates on the status of the DTV transition.

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