DTV’s Most Vulnerable: Troubling Numbers

Feb 1, 2009  •  Post A Comment

When the Texas Media Empowerment Project released its digital television transition hotline number in early January, the San Antonio media advocacy group began fielding between 60 and 200 calls each day from local citizens worried about how they’ll receive local news and emergency information if they can’t afford to switch to digital.
“We are receiving phone calls mainly from Spanish-speaking communities or communities that can’t afford cable or satellite,” said Deanne Cuellar, project director for the TMEP, which is operating a digital TV assistance center to help people set up converter boxes and digital TVs. “The community is confused and they are concerned.”
San Antonio is not alone. Consumers Union estimates Texas will be the state hit hardest by the mandatory transition to digital TV programming this year.
The populations most affected will be rural, Spanish-speaking, low-income and the elderly, said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst with Consumers Union. Some of the TV markets with the largest percentage of unprepared homes are Albuquerque, N.M., and Tulsa, Okla., at 13%; Dallas and Houston at about 12%; and Salt Lake City at about 11%.
While the government is offering a $40 coupon to cover the cost of a converter box, that’s not enough for some homes, said Ernesto Olivo, a TMEP community organizer who is fielding calls and, on his own time, visiting homes to install converter boxes. Nearly everyone he’s talked to said the $40 government coupon doesn’t cover the full cost of a converter box. Most boxes cost $50 to $70 at local retailers such as Best Buy or Radio Shack. “Thirty dollars for someone on a fixed income is a lot of money. That’s bills or food,” Mr. Olivo said.
There’s also the issue of coupon availability. The government ran out of coupons in early January and it’s not clear when more will be issued. “There are many people here in San Antonio making well below $30,000 a year,” Ms. Cuellar said. “We are trying to prepare for the worst and move forward as quickly as possible to get as many boxes to people.”
The Consumers Union is urging Congress to delay the switch to June to help more homes prepare, Mr. Kelsey said. In the past year and a half, 6 million-plus homes made the transition, but another 7.75 million homes were still unprepared as of December, he said.
“Many are now stranded on the waiting list and many have yet to take action because they are waiting to find out what is going to happen,” Mr. Kelsey said.
There are also misconceptions among consumers, with 41% believing every TV set needs a converter box, according to an October study by Consumers Union. In fact, the only TVs that need converter boxes are analog sets not connected to satellite or cable.
On the flip side, many analog over-the-air TV consumers have already taken the needed steps.
In late January, Paula Mathiesen of Pittsburgh used last year’s government rebate check to buy a new 19-inch, $299 digital TV so she can continue to receive PBS programming such as “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” at her home. “I figured I’d do the most basic thing, but I am going to do everything I can to avoid getting cable or satellite,” she said.
Carol Lombardi lives in Oro Valley, Ariz., a suburb of Tucson. She purchased a converter box more than a year ago to keep watching local news and PBS on her analog set. The weather affects the signal, but when it does, she says, she’s not bothered.
“It kind of forces you to do other things, like enjoy the great outdoors or read more, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” she said.

One Comment

  1. Hi
    I am the coordinator of the DTV assistance centers in San Antonio, of which TMEP is one.
    Good article. Could you list all the assistance centers here in San Antonio? These centers may be able to help. Thanks
    Texas Media Empowerment Project
    210 440 7375
    Communication Services for the Deaf of Texas
    605 367 5760
    Frueza Unida
    210 927 2294
    William C. Velasquez Institute
    210 922 3132

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