Obama seeks delay to digital TV switch

Thursday, January 8, 2009 | 5:28 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — With about a month to go before the scheduled nationwide switch from analog to digital television, President-elect Barack Obama's transition team asked Congress on Thursday to delay that switch. The request comes after an announcement this week that the money for consumer coupons to get converter boxes has run out and that people seeking those coupons are being put on a waiting list.

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," wrote John Podesta, co-chairman of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team, in a letter sent to leaders of the House and Senate Commerce committees.


Vouchers for converter boxes can be ordered online at or by calling 888-388-2009.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is responsible for distributing converter box coupons, announced Monday that it had reached its $1.34 billion legal obligation limit for ordered and redeemed coupons. People wanting the $40 coupons, which can be redeemed locally for converter boxes, must wait until the ones now in circulation expire. Coupons expire 90 days from the date they are mailed.

As of Thursday, 1.1 million coupon requests are waiting to be filled. That's at least half a million households, because each household can request up to two coupons.

On Wednesday, in letters to Congress, President George W. Bush and Obama, The Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, urged the switch be delayed until the flaws in the coupon program are resolved.

The Bush administration opposes a delay, according to Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the NTIA. She said the administration is asking for $250 million to meet last-minute demand. Baker said a delay "would create uncertainty, frustration and confusion among consumers."

Analog ends Feb. 17

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 is requiring full-power television stations to broadcast exclusively in a digital format. Feb. 17 will mark the end of traditional over-the-air analog broadcasting. That means if you have rabbit ears on your TV or a roof antennae, it's time to make a decision.

Fred Doll, co-owner of Pioneer Audio & Visual in Columbia, said he has already upgraded his home televisions with digital-to-analog converters. He said a few people have come into the store inquiring about the digital switch.

"Not too many people are concerned by it," Doll said. "I'm sure some people are oblivious. I imagine they'll find out in February."

Digital broadcasting enables TV stations to transmit clearer pictures with higher-quality sound. It is also intended to allow for more public safety communication broadcasts, such as police and fire departments and rescue squads; some analog frequencies will then be turned over to public safety.

Keep in mind that next month's transition is a move from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting and should not be confused with high definition broadcasting. While digital broadcasting allows for high definition broadcasts, you do not need to buy a high definition TV to watch digital TV.   

Doll said that even without a high definition TV — which provides greater clarity for shows shot in "high def"— consumers should see a noticeable difference in their TV viewing experience.

"Maybe not so much with strong signals like Channel 8, but for weaker channels like 13 and 17, it should improve picture quality greatly," Doll said, referring to mid-Missouri stations KOMU, KRCG and KMIZ respectively. 

Options for the digital switch

If you use an antenna to watch free, over-the-air TV and don't subscribe to cable or satellite, you will need to upgrade to digital television in one of three ways, according to the government Web site

  • Buy a digital-to-analog converter box. Probably the least expensive option, the box connects an antenna to the back of the TV and converts the digital signal into an analog format. The box becomes the channel changer for old TVs. DTV converter boxes are available in Columbia at electronics retailers including Sears, Target and Best Buy and locally cost between $40 and $60.
  • Get a TV set with a built-in digital tuner. If your set was made before 1998, it's unlikely to have one. However, many but not all TV sets purchased since 2004 have digital tuners and will allow you to receive the new digital signal. If you don't know whether your TV has one, look at the owners manual or check out the back of your TV to see if it has an input labeled "digital input" or "ATSC."
  • Sign up for a cable or satellite package. Cable companies must continue offering local broadcast stations in analog because the Feb. 17 digital transition only applies to full-power, free over-the-air broadcast stations.

Satellite TV is a digital service but one that is still compatible with analog TV with the help of a set-top box — not to be confused with a converter box — that connects to your TV set to receive the satellite programming. If you still wish to watch local TV via satellite, check with your provider to make sure a local TV package is part of your subscription.    

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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