Consumers confused about digital TV transition

/ Source: The Associated Press

Much of what consumers are learning about the looming shift to digital broadcasting is just plain wrong and could end up costing them money, according to a survey.

Some people think they need to buy new equipment when they don't, according to a Consumers Union survey, and others say they don't plan on taking any steps to deal with the change when they should.

"Confusion about the digital television transition will cost consumers a lot of money for equipment they may not want or need," Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for the Consumers Union, said Wednesday.

Starting Feb. 18, 2009, full-power television stations in the U.S. will turn off their old-technology analog signals and broadcast only in a digital format, potentially leaving millions of televisions displaying nothing but snow.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, says 36 percent of respondents in its survey were unaware of the transition — a big number, but much lower than what has been reported in studies from a year ago.

The great majority of consumers — anyone whose television is hooked up to a cable or satellite service or owns a digital set — will not be affected. Anyone who owns an older television that gets its signal via antenna, however, will need a converter box, which the government will help pay for.

As of December 2007, the Nielsen Co. reported that 13.5 million television households, or about 12 percent, rely on over-the-air television broadcasts for programming.

Among those consumers who are aware of the transition, 58 percent believe all televisions will need a converter box to function. Forty-eight percent believe that only digital televisions will work after 2009, and 24 percent believe they will need to throw away all of their analog television sets.

None of these presumptions is true.

The government has allocated $1.5 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to pay for coupons that will subsidize the cost of converter boxes. But only $5 million of that is for consumer education. Another $1.5 million has been allocated to the Federal Communications Commission for public education efforts.

While more Americans are becoming aware of the transition, 73 percent of those surveyed were unaware of the government coupon program, according to the Consumers Union survey.

Each household is eligible for two coupons, regardless of whether they have pay-television service or not. To request a coupon, consumers can apply online at or call the 24-hour hotline, 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009).

Also on Wednesday, the National Association of Broadcasters released its own survey on consumer awareness. The broadcast lobbying organization reported 79 percent of respondents said they had "seen, read or heard something" about the transition. The number was more than double the 38 percent reported in January 2007.