Digitally fearful? You've won a reprieve

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2009 - 10:02 PM

Congress is likely to give a break to nearly 6.5 million households that aren't ready for digital TV.

It appears that analog TV will get a stay of execution. The U.S. House is expected to follow the Senate's lead this week in delaying the Feb. 17 deadline for all TV broadcasts to go digital, which means the nearly 6 percent of Twin Cities households that haven't made the switch will have until June 12 to do so.

Congress is acting because of a delay in supplying consumers with federally funded coupons to buy digital converter boxes. The waiting list has grown to more than 2.5 million people since the program hit its $1.34 billion funding limit earlier this month. In all, 6.5 million U.S. households aren't digital-ready, according to the Nielsen Co.

The four-month extension also will come in handy for those who still don't understand what's happening.

Curt Scurlock, who bills himself as the technology "go-to" guy in his St. Cloud apartment building, estimates that more than half of the residents in his 126-unit complex aren't ready for the change.

"We have a lot of Somalians living here and, from what I understand, the information isn't in their language," said Scurlock, who has cable TV and thus is unaffected by the change. "It's hard to describe to them what's going on since they don't have all this technology in their home country."

Main Street Project, a nonpartisan arm of the League of Rural Voters, has been reaching out to people most likely to be affected by the change -- the elderly, immigrants, lower-income families -- through training sessions, including one to be held at 11 this morning at the Pillsbury Waite House in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood. As many as 150 are expected to attend.

"There's a huge population across the country, and Minnesota is no exception, that doesn't know what this means in real terms," said Main Street's program director, Amalia Deloney. "I mean, it's complicated. The first two times I had to fill out the paperwork online, get a coupon for a converter box and install the box was tough. TV access isn't a bread-and-butter issue."

Calling in the Geek Squad

Twin Cities Public Television executives learned just how many people are still befuddled when they set up an informational phone bank Monday night, manned by experts from Geek Squad and Best Buy. About 50 volunteers answered questions from 1,000 callers over the course of three hours -- and that's just the folks who got through.

"A lot of the callers had 90 percent of it figured out and they needed the other 10 percent," said Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas, who helped answer phones. "It's a lot of tying up of loose ends."

Public TV stations are particularly concerned about the change because many of its most loyal viewers think cable and satellite TV are unnecessary luxuries, right up there with caviar and balloon rides.

"It's largely a psychological choice, not a demographic one," said John Wilson, PBS's senior vice president of programming. "They are very particular about what they watch and public television is very good for them. In that sense, we are disproportionately affected by the over-the-air issue."

Lower percentage than most

The Twin Cities also has a lower percentage of cable subscribers than in most major metro areas of the country. Somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of Twin Cities households rely on their antennas.

That may be due in part to our Scandinavian stubbornness. But Minnesota is blessed with great over-the-air reception, thanks to the flat terrain and the fact that most transmitters in the Twin Cities are aimed in the same direction, said WCCO-TV general manager Susan Adams Loyd. As a result, we don't get interference from competing signals, mountains or the ocean.

"When I worked in Florida, I used to say that you'd get great reception if you were a fish," said Loyd.

For those who want to keep their antennas and analog TVs, a converter box should work just fine, unless you live further than 60 miles from the transmitter. (UHF signals, which will replace VHF, don't carry as far because they don't bounce off the atmosphere, said Gary Kroger, WCCO's director of engineering.) Those folks may have to get a different antenna -- or get used to a monthly bill for cable or satellite.

Experts urge those who want to stay loyal to antennas to get their converter boxes as soon as possible, leaving plenty of time to experiment and make adjustments.

Minnesotans appear to be getting the message. A year ago, the Twin Cities was nearly the least-prepared metro area, second only to Portland, Ore., according to Nielsen. But now only 5.8 percent of Twin Cities households aren't digital-ready -- roughly the same as the nation as a whole.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 Staff writer Randy A. Salas contributed to this report.

  • DIGITAL OPTIONS

    • Get a digital converter box. These cost $40-$70 but you can save $40 with a government coupon. Go to www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009.

    • Buy a digital TV. All new sets, and most of those made since 2004, can show digital broadcasts.

    • Subscribe to cable or satellite service.

    RESOURCES

    • Main Street Project is offering assistance to Twin Cities residents. Go to www.mainstreetproject.org.

    • Federal Communications Commission maintains an informational site at www.dtv.gov.

    • National Association of Broadcasters helps you figure out how to get a strong enough signal at www.antennaweb.org.

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