Digital TV divide in the air

Transition awareness is debated

WASHINGTON -- The transition to digital TV is going swimmingly -- or Americans are sinking into a vast sea of confusion. It all depends on which of two major studies one believes.

Two studies released Wednesday by the nonprofit Consumers Union and the National Association of Broadcasters trade group paint vastly different pictures of American TV viewers' knowledge of the switch, which is scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009.

Generally, analog TV sets -- the ones with the big cathode-ray tubes -- that receive an over-the-air signal will need a converter box that will translate the digital signal into analog language. If the set is hooked to cable or satellite TV, it probably won't need a box. If it's a new set with a digital tuner, it doesn't need a box. About 34 million people still get their TV off the air.

According to the CU, for even the people who know about the transition, 58% believe all TVs will need a digital converter box to function, 48% believe that only digital televisions will work after 2009 and 24% believe they will need to throw away all of their analog TV sets.

"Confusion about the digital television transition will cost consumers a lot of money for equipment they don't want or don't need," CU policy analyst Joel Kelsey said. "Based on these survey results, it is now clear the government and every media company that profits from people watching television must do whatever it takes to make sure consumers will keep getting broadcast TV without paying a dime more than necessary."

In contrast, the NAB survey found that most TV viewers do know about the switch.

According to the broadcasters, 79% have "seen, read or heard something about" the transition to digital television. Moreover, 83% of TV viewers who still rely on an antenna know things are about to change.

"This is a big step toward our goal of reaching every American with information about the DTV transition," NAB president and CEO David Rehr said. "The first phase of our consumer education campaign has been highly successful, and our next phase will focus on helping consumers learn more about the steps they need to take to receive a digital signal."

Government officials appeared to be content with the "if-by-whiskey" message, which in political parlance is an argument that affirms both sides of an issue and agrees with whichever side the questioner supports.

"I welcome today's surveys by Consumers Union and the NAB, which provide important information about current levels of consumer awareness," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said. "As the NAB notes, the fact that more Americans are aware of the upcoming transition is a big step in the right direction. It is equally important, however, as highlighted by Consumers Union, that consumers understand how to be prepared."

The FCC and the Commerce Department's National Information and Telecommunications Administration share government responsibility for overseeing the transition. The NTIA has established a voucher program that would allow Americans to get up to two $40 vouchers for digital-analog converters until the $1.5 billion Congress appropriated for the program runs out.