DTV Coupon Boss Faces Last Mile

Jan 4, 2009  •  Post A Comment

As crunch time approaches in the country’s switch to all-digital television signals, Meredith Atwell Baker is in the middle of the maelstrom.
As the person heading up the coupon program subsidizing converter boxes for analog TV owners at risk of losing their signals on Feb. 17, Ms. Atwell Baker is in the midst of a fight over whether the Bush administration has done enough to advance the digital transition.
Her circumstances highlight a frightening question mark hanging over the DTV transition as Washington prepares to be convulsed by a change in administration: Who, exactly, will be at the helm when the DTV switch is thrown?
As the switchover date approaches, the incoming Barack Obama administration is likely to vest DTV transition oversight with the Federal Communications Commission or in the White House itself. Still, with less than two months to go, and coupon requests now coming in hot and heavy, it is Ms. Atwell Baker who is in charge of the government’s biggest digital TV program.
“My hope is that consumers are well educated, that they know their options and act before Feb. 17,” Ms. Atwell Baker said.
She predicts consumer readiness will improve as stations conduct DTV tests in the next few weeks.
Ms. Atwell Baker, who is acting assistant secretary for communications and information for the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, last month said the $1.5 billion coupon program needs more money.
Consumer groups, citing some surveys, have warned about potential public confusion over the DTV transition and questioned whether the program has been adequately funded. They’ve also asked why the NTIA hasn’t been more proactive in going to Congress for help with some problems. Another concern is whether enough attention has been paid to teaching people how to install and use the converter boxes.
“We have tried to have a consumer-friendly program so Americans know what’s coming, what step to take, and act,” she said. “We appreciate everyone’s interest and we appreciate everyone working together to see this transition works.
“The government has worked hard to educate consumers on trying their converter box and has worked closely with manufacturers and retailers to assist consumers as well,” she added. “For example, combined with the $2.7 million awarded to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, NTIA has now provided an extra $4.35 million to assist seniors, minorities, low-income individuals, the disabled and rural residents with hands-on help to complete the digital transition.
“Our ‘apply, buy and try’ campaign has served to help people use their boxes, too. Our message urges consumers to connect the box to their analog TV immediately and follow the installation, channel scanning instructions and antenna adjustments, if needed,” she said. “This provides the opportunity to test the converter box and troubleshoot potential problems prior to the transition date. Most importantly, consumers can start enjoying the benefits of a clearer picture and more programming choices now.”
Both the politicians and the consumer groups have asked whether NTIA can handle an expected last-minute blitz of coupon requests.
“When we reach the obligation limit of $1.34 billion, the program will hold coupon requests until funds from unredeemed coupons become available for obligation,” Ms. Atwell Baker told TelevisionWeek. “Also, there may be people who still need to switch to digital TV days before or after Feb. 17, but they can switch by purchasing a converter box with or without a coupon, a new digital TV, or subscribe to cable, satellite or other pay TV service. [There are] plenty of approaches for consumers to successfully switch to digital.”
Broadcasters, meanwhile, have defended the government program, as have Republicans.
The scope of the DTV switch utterly dwarfed any public program the NTIA had previously been involved with. The agency has created a coupon program, gotten thousands of stores qualified to redeem them and distributed 40.3 million coupons to 23.1 million households.
So far, 17.5 million coupons have been redeemed. Nielsen reported that as of December, 6.8% of households are completely unready for the transition, an improvement from 10.1% in February 2008.
But with the switch approaching, Ms. Atwell Baker is pushing for more funds to see the converter-box coupon program through.
A week ago, in answer to a letter from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom panel, Ms. Atwell Baker finally agreed with Democrats who had voiced concern that the $1.5 billion set aside for the program wasn’t enough.
She asked for $250 million to $325 million more and also sounded a warning that the number of converter boxes could fall 2.5 million short.


  1. who ever is running this thing needs to have some common sense about them. i had ordered two coupons for my 89 year old aunt who does not have cable or satelite. we got the coupons and bought 2 acess hd boxes. they did not work and reported them. i got my money back ($20.00) but not the coupons. since i have ordered two for myself and the two i ordered for her, i now cannot get any coupons for her because she already had ordered two…..but the damn converter boxes didnot work and the they knew it but i now cannont get any more coupons. oh well i guess she won’t be watching tv cause she is not going to spend $60.00 to watch tv.

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