Friday, February 8, 2008

Seven out of 10 consumers know about the transition to digital television. The rest have 375 days to get the message.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez yesterday joined Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin at a Best Buy in Tenleytown to begin the countdown until Feb. 17, 2009. On that date, analog TV sets that aren’t connected to cable, satellite or a digital tuner will go black.

“We want to make sure that every consumer affected by this change is aware of this change and has enough time to take action,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

Seventy-four percent of Americans are now aware of the switch from analog to digital, up from 41 percent a year ago, according to a new survey by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The switch affects 13.5 million households, according to the Nielsen Co.

“While more and more viewers are increasingly aware of the transition, too many are uncertain about what they need to do to prepare for it,” Mr. Martin said.

Households that rely on rabbit ears to receive free over-the-air broadcasts have three options to keep watching TV after the switch: They can buy a new digital TV, subscribe to cable or satellite service, or purchase a converter box.

Best Buy, which stopped selling analog sets in October, said it will begin stocking and selling the converter boxes at all its stores on Feb. 17, one year before the transition. On the same day, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, will start sending $40 coupons to consumers who request them to help purchase the set-top boxes. Households will be eligible for two coupons, which they must use within 90 days.

The converter box being sold at Best Buy, made by Insignia, costs $59.95. Best Buy is one of 250 retailers licensed to participate in the government coupon program.

In a demonstration, an analog TV hooked up to a digital converter box had a more stable, crisp picture than an analog set by itself, which had a shaky, grainy picture. The box connects to both the TV and its antenna and seemed easy to use.

Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Martin were joined by leaders of the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the CEA.

“Digital broadcasting offers a crystal-clear picture, more channels, more services, phenomenal audio quality and will make television better than it’s ever been, and it will be free,” said David Rehr, NAB president.

The FCC has already started auctioning off parts of the airwaves that will be freed up by the conversion to digital signals, which require less spectrum.

Public and private leaders say the move will give rise to new devices and services, in addition to a nationwide network that will be used by emergency responders.

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