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Campaign to educate public on digital TV switch

Coalition from TV, consumer electronics and civil rights spheres aims to prepare Americans for death of analog in 2009.

WASHINGTON--Concerned that millions of Americans don't understand what the February 2009 digital television switch means for their sets, a number of industry and public interest groups on Wednesday said they plan to launch an educational campaign.

Trade associations representing consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers, the cable and broadcast industries, public television stations, and civil rights advocates have aligned themselves as the DTV Transition Coalition and plan to pool unspecified millions of dollars to educate consumers about the crossover from analog TV.

The announcement of the alliance's formation at a press conference here arrived one day before manufacturers TVs, VCRs, DVD players and recorders, digital video recorders and other devices that contain only an analog tuner. The proposed transition from analog to all-digital broadcasts has been in the works for years, but Congress decreed in late 2005 that analog TV spectrum had to be vacated after February 17, 2009.

The deadline will not affect the vast majority of Americans who already subscribe to cable or satellite TV. But an estimated 19 million households, according to a recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) survey, that do not subscribe to those services, must either acquire a digital-to-analog converter box or another device, such as a VCR or DVD player, containing a digital tuner to continue receiving free, "over-the-air" shows on their analog TV sets.

The new campaign also launches as leaders in Congress continue to voice concern about what some perceive as a lack of guidance from the Bush administration on a planned program to subsidize converter boxes. In an attempt to ease the transition, Congress set aside $1.5 billion so that American households may request up to two $40 vouchers to use toward purchase of the devices, which are expected to cost between $50 and $70.

With 10 months until the voucher program is scheduled by law to begin at the start of 2008, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is charged with presiding over the hand-outs, has not yet released final rules explaining how it will work.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, blasted the situation in a speech at a broadcasters' conference on Tuesday.

"We don't yet have technical standards for the boxes," he said. "We don't know when the boxes will be ready. We don't know how much personal information consumers must disclose on the application. We don't know whether retailers will maintain an adequate supply of boxes and report redemption rates in a timely manner."

In a brief appearance at Wednesday's press conference, NTIA official Meredith Baker said the rules would be coming "very soon" but declined to take further questions from reporters before exiting the room.

The newly formed coalition said its goal is to provide a unified source of information for the public. Through a dedicated Web site and eventual televised public service announcements, some said the groups plan to treat the issue as though they were conducting a high-profile campaign for political office.

Right now, however, "we have a candidate with virtually no name recognition," conceded Jonathan Collegio, vice president of NAB's digital television transition team.

Between 41 percent and 43 percent of American households, with at least one working TV that relies solely on over-the-air broadcasts, was aware of the transition to digital broadcasts, according to NAB-commissioned random telephone surveys of about 3,000 households conducted in January and February of this year. Of that same group, only 9 percent of those households could correctly state the year the shift is set to occur.

Public interest groups also remain concerned that elderly and low-income households, which tend to rely more heavily on free, over-the-air broadcasts, will be left behind.

"Like some science fiction nightmare, the news they watch, the programs that keep them company and let them know what is happening down the block will, poof, disappear," said Nancy Zirkin, vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, whose more than 200 member organizations include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL-CIO.

As the government irons out the parameters of the subsidy program, Zirkin said she hoped priority would be given to "those in need, so the money isn't gone before all the people who need it get it."

The U.S. government has long been pushing for the digital television shift so that it may set aside a certain amount of the freed-up TV spectrum for use by emergency responders. It also expects to raise as much as $10 billion for the federal treasury by auctioning off the remaining spectrum to companies that say its inherent scientific properties will make for easier and cheaper broadband deployments.