More than 22 percent of viewers in the Twin Cities area aren't set for the switch to digital-only transmission, which starts next Feb. 17.
Russell Cummings is getting an early start on the federally mandated switchover from analog to digital TV broadcasts. The retired Shoreview resident, 69, recently bought a flat-panel LCD set with a built-in digital tuner and has requested government vouchers to defray the costs of converter boxes for two older TV sets with analog tuners.
Many other Minnesota residents might do well to follow Cummings' example, because the Twin Cities viewing area is woefully unprepared for the switchover that will take place one year from today, according to a new study.
The change will leave those who get over-the-air reception on older sets with nothing to watch unless they take steps soon. Newer TVs with digital tuners and sets hooked up to cable or satellite services won't be affected.
More than 22 percent of the TV sets in the Minneapolis-St. Paul viewing area -- which covers 59 Minnesota counties and nine in Wisconsin -- are not ready for the digital switch-over, according to a just-released survey by the Nielsen Co. Only Portland, Ore., has a bigger proportion of outmoded sets, 22.4 percent.
In addition, the Nielsen study found that minority households are more likely to be affected by the transition, with one or more unready TV sets in 26.2 percent of Hispanic homes nationally, 19.5 percent of black homes and 18.8 percent of Asian homes -- compared with 15.2 percent of white households.
In all, more than 10 percent of all U.S. homes -- about 13 million -- would have no access to TV signals if the switch occurred today, the report said. Nearly 17 percent have at least one older TV that would not work after the transition, it said.
Viewers with analog TV sets have several options over the next year:
• Upgrade to a newer TV with a digital tuner.
• Subscribe to a satellite or cable service.
• Buy a converter box that connects to your older set and antenna and converts the digital signal.
The latter is the cheapest option, thanks to a government program to issue free vouchers to defray part of the cost of converter boxes, which officially go on sale today for $50 to $70 at major retailers. After applying the $40 coupon, the boxes end up costing $10 to $30 each.
There is a limit of two vouchers per household. Only one voucher can be used per converter box. Consumers can request vouchers by phone or online.
"The process has been easy so far, probably because I understand it a little bit," said Cummings, a retired Honeywell worker who calls himself "an electronics nut."
But TV viewers who aren't as savvy or well-informed as Cummings are causing concern.
Brandon Nessen, who works with low-income families as part of Minnesota ACORN, a St. Paul social justice group, praised the voucher program but expressed concern that not everyone will get the message.
"The toll-free number that people can use to get the voucher really needs to be put in people's hands, face to face, in order for them to get the message loud and clear that they're going to have to do this to avoid losing TV reception or face paying a much higher amount [without the voucher] to get the converter box," he said.
"I'm interested to see whether Best Buy and other companies that could stand to make major profits from the switchover are willing to invest resources into the kind of education and outreach to help people understand what their options are," he added.
Best Buy pushes education
That's exactly what Best Buy intends, according to spokesman Brian Lucas. He said the Richfield-based retailer has created a toll-free number to answer consumer questions and has requested that the federal government publicize voucher-distribution information so Best Buy can ensure it meets the demand for the boxes.
"The biggest problem is not going to be with the customer who walks through a Best Buy every week," Lucas said. "Our normal customer is probably not going to be as impacted, or, at least, they are going to be more aware of what to do. So we need to get out of our normal communications channels and reach out into all communities -- and reach out multiple times."
Paul Anderson, 48, of Chanhassen, says he has checked out converter boxes at Wal-Mart, which is selling a $50 model. He has requested two vouchers, meaning he will have to buy a converter box at full price for his third set. He said he plans to buy just one at first to test the reception of Twin Cities TV stations, all of which are already broadcasting digitally, and then buy the others later. He can't wait too long, however: the vouchers expire 90 days after they're mailed; each has an expiration date printed on it.
Tom Carnel, 56, a real-estate broker in Cannon Falls, recently bought a 42-inch LCD set because his previous TV of more than 20 years "was just about to go on the fritz." But he has requested a voucher in anticipation of the day when he says his wife will get after him to upgrade a second, older TV set. The transition has been smooth so far.
"For the most part, it's worked out pretty good for a layperson who's not that knowledgeable about it," he said.
ACORN's Nessen said he hopes that the digital TV switchover goes as smoothly for everyone.
"Even though the switch is one year out, it's good that we're talking about it now," he said.
Best Buy's Lucas agreed. "One of the reasons we're trying to educate people early about this is trying to avoid the sudden peaks in demand, so we're encouraging people to start thinking about this now. ... The more we can stay on top of this, the easier it is going to be for all retailers and consumers."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542