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TV rabbit ears to go digital for the elderly

Pending changes to free over-the-air analog TV may leave the elderly in the dark come February 2009.

The digital age is about to invade your elderly parents' or grandparents' living room. But do they know it?

The pending changes to free over-the-air TV for analog TV owners has gotten the attention on the Hill. The Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing Wednesday morning to discuss the topic.

Come February 2009, seniors who have analog TV sets and rely on rabbit ears to capture free TV programming off the airwaves face a huge problem--no picture.

That's when TV broadcasters will be required to halt analog broadcasting and, instead, transmit their content in digital form. For seniors who subscribe to cable, satellite or multichannel video programming services, their TV service will remain uninterrupted, even if they have an analog TV set.

But for those who don't--no TV, unless they purchase a digital-to-analog converter box.

The converter boxes are anticipated to cost anywhere from $50 to $70 and are expected to hit the shelves at consumer electronics stores in early 2008. To help offset the cost of the boxes, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will begin offering Converter Box Coupons beginning January 1, 2008.

The $40-coupon can be applied toward the cost of the converter box, but will not cover installation fees, said Todd Sedmak, an NTIA spokesman. Consumers who need the coupons will be entitled to two per household.

An estimated 31 million U.S. households are believed to have an analog TV that relies on free over-the-air programming. Of this group, the Association of Public TV Stations estimates that 24 percent, or approximately 7.5 million viewers, are 65 years old or older.

Some of the concerns raised during the hearing included whether correct information was going to be provided to seniors, or their caregivers, by retailers selling the boxes.

Amina Fazlullah, a media reform advocate and staff attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, expressed dismay that incorrect information about the converter boxes and the coupon program is being disseminated to seniors who enter the stores.

"We need to make sure retailers are providing accurate information. They're either offering boxes that are not relevant or trying to upsell (a more expensive device) to the consumer," Fazlullah said.