The long-planned shift from analog to digital TV, scheduled for Feb. 17, has been a troubled transition. Not enough households are ready, and now there's a waiting list for coupons for converter boxes some will need to upgrade to a digital signal.
While TV doesn't and shouldn't have the same importance of fixing the financial mess and fighting two wars, Congress should heed this week's call from President-elect Barack Obama to delay the digital switch.
Despite unprecedented efforts by the federal government and the TV industry to create awareness, there are still 6.2 percent of households that are categorized as "completely unready," according to Nielsen Media Services. And this number is higher for communities that often are most dependent on over-the-air TV for news and information that can help build a more cohesive society. An estimated 11.5 percent of Hispanic households aren't ready, for example.
But the problem is not limited to the immigrant communities in America's South and Southwest. The chosen frozen here in the North Star state have a big stake as well. According to the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, 21.5 percent of Minnesota homes use rabbit ears, putting the state at No. 3 nationally, and the Twin Cities ranks No. 2 among metro areas, with 23 percent.
And unlike most technological transformations, it's not clueless mom and dad or even grandma and grandpa, but more likely younger households that are lagging: 5.2 percent of homes headed by people over 55 are "completely unready," compared with 6.6 percent for houses headed by those 35-54 and 9.9 percent for those headed by adults younger than 35.
This is probably not because young families are unaware of the big switch. It's more likely the cost of getting ready for the change, which can range from subscribing to satellite or cable, purchasing a new digital TV or buying a converter box for an existing analog set.
To help mitigate this cost, a program was set up to issue converter box coupons, which have a value of $40 that can be applied to the typical retail price of $45 to $80. But now there's a major snag: There's a waiting list for the coupons that may delay even those who have been conscientious about preparing for the switch. The waiting list isn't due to the $1.34 billion program running out of money, but to a budget cap that has to assume a coupon redemption rate of 100 percent of those who haven't reached their 90-day expiration date, even though the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports a current redemption rate of about 50 percent.
More funds could be authorized. Or, more prudently, the authorization ceiling could be lifted in order to send out coupons as quickly as possible.
But even if Congress moved with uncharacteristic speed, many would not get the coupons on time, forcing some of those hit hardest by the recession and unemployment to have to pay full price for a converter box or to go without TV for some time.
A delay could cause hardship for stations, which are incurring cost, but not generating any revenue, for having to concurrently carry a digital and analog signal. But it would also hurt broadcasters if those most loyal -- the homes only receiving over-the-air TV -- see snow on their sets matching Minnesota's February landscape.
This is the most fundamental change ever in TV technology. It will never be seamless, but moving the date will help iron out the coupon kinks and better prepare the nation for the switch.