I Want My DTV: Old Folks Get Shafted by the Switch to Digital Television

I wrote today on the Mother Jones blog about the latest developments in the digital TV disaster: After a week of peevish wrangling–and with just two weeks left until the deadline–Congress finally did the right thing and postponed the switchover from analog to digital-only television from February 17 to June 12.

I also wrote about the winners and losers in the so-called transition. Old people, of course, were (and still are) the ones most likely to be left in the dark. Others wil l suffer as well: According to a January report from the Congressional Research Service, the changeover will be hardest on “low-income, elderly, disabled, non-English speaking, minority, and rural populations”–all the people who have no cable and no spiffy new digital TV set, and to lack the resources to make the switch–as this very funny but sadly accurate video portrays.

I’ve been researching the whole mess for several weeks, and I’m posting here some of what I couldn’t fit on Mother Jones–including my own experiences with cable guys and fritzed-out toasters.

It’s clear to me that the mess that has been made of the digital transition was predictable from the start. According to the prevailing practices of the Bush administration, the program was designed to reward the entrepreneurial spirit of private companies by giving them government handouts, while leaving the public to figure things out more or less on their own. To this end, the agency in charge of the switch, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) developed a plan to help poor, cable-less people get the converter boxes they needed by means of government-subsidized coupons redeemable at private retailers. Each household was allowed to send in a request to the NTIA for one or two free coupons, each worth $40 toward the converter box of their choice.

bkgd1Then the chaos began. The public education efforts about the changeover, according to both the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were too little and too late. They were also confusing and incomplete, and focused on steering consumers toward information on web sites. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the people most likely to need converter boxes were the same people least likely to have computers, or know how to use them. (Even nursing home residents were advised to apply for coupons using “the paper application available downloadable [sic] at http://www.DTV2009.gov.”)

A Consumers Union survey conducted in December 2007, as the coupon program began, found “a staggering lack of awareness and confusion among consumers about the DTV transition.” More than a third of all Americans were “entirely unaware of the government-mandated transition to digital broadcasting,” and “74 percent of respondents who said they were aware of the upcoming transition had serious misconceptions of its impact.” Among those completely unaffected by the transition, 33 percent planned to get converter boxes they didn’t need, while 31 percent planned to purchase a new digital TV. Even six months later, according to a June 2008 report from the GAO, “45 percent of those households who are at risk plan inadequate or no action to prepare for the transition. Conversely, amongst those unaffected by the transition, 30 percent indicated they have plans to ready themselves for the transition–despite the fact that no action will be required to maintain television service.”

Even if people managed to order and receive coupons, they then had to get themselves to a retailer and buy themselves a converter box-no small challenge for an elderly, disabled, or non-English-speaking person. While a few stores, including Wal Mart and Best Buy, had boxes selling for around $40, many other boxes sold for $50 to $80, requiring an additional investment by consumers.

btn_wherecoupon1Then, on January 4, with just six weeks to go until the transition, the coupons ran out. The NTIA had reached the $1.34 billion limit set by Congress, and even though only about half the coupons had been redeemed, it could issue no more. People were told to add their names to a waiting list; when unredeemed coupons expired, they might or might not get one. The waiting list was soon more than a million names long, while millions of others held unused, expired coupons they might have needed-and they aren’t allowed to re-apply.

Those who managed to get converter boxes had problems of their own. To begin with, they were far from easy to hook up. And they weren’t enough to ensure digital reception: In many cases, consumers also need a new indoor or outdoor antenna, which can cost anywhere from $20 to $150, and presents additional challenges as well. “Winter in Vermont is not when you want to be installing a rooftop antenna,” Senator Bernie Sanders ( I-VT) told the Associated Press. “Television is a connection to the outside world for many people. But if you’re 80 years old and living on Social Security, you may not be able to buy an antenna or hire someone to install it.”

Finally, while people with cable have been told they have nothing to worry about, this isn’t always true. Some will need to add or upgrade their cable boxes to get clear pictures and access to all channels.

I discovered this myself a few weeks ago, and called RCN, the cable provider in Washington, D.C., and after half an hour on hold was told the cable signal had been upgraded as per the new government program, and I would need a cable box. RCN would supply one complementary box, and I could purchase others at their online store, or rent them for a monthly charge of $3 each. A company technician would install them free of charge.

On the appointed day, the technician arrived and set to work. Soon he had a clear picture, and was ready to show me how to use the new system. First he handed me my old remote and told me to point it at the newly equipped set, then push the power button. Once the light on the set turned green, I was to drop the old remote, grasp the new remote, point it at the set, and push a button labeled “all devices.” I’d need to use two remotes to turn it off, too. If I had any problems, he said, brandishing a booklet, I could follow the instructional bulletin. He ran his finger over a set of intricate disagrams and labels, then bade me good bye.

Everything worked splendidly until the toaster, attached to the same plug as the TV, suddenly stopped working. I pulled the toaster plug out and got it restarted, but when I went to turn on the TV-I was back to square one. The technician had left a card with his direct number on it, but there was no answer. After calling several times, I finally resorted to RCN’s regular tech service number, which usually went through, after some waiting, to a helpful person in an unknown overseas city. As I sat on hold, randomly clicking the two remotes, I finally found the right combination to get the television working.

I may be old, but I’m a lot younger than some people, and I’m physically able, computer saavy, and able to afford cable-and I still had problems. In fact, about 40 percent of those affected by the changeover are senior citizens, and many will clearly be unable to manage the transition on their own.

As early as the fall of 2007, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, among others, was warning of the impending disaster the switch represents for old people. A year later, Congress finally allocated $20 million for additional education and outreach efforts. Just over $1.3 million went for advertising in AARP publications. Another $355,000 was used to sponsor a NASCAR car–which crashed and burned in its second race.) It took until January 6, 2009 (just after the coupons ran out) for the FCC to give $8.4 million in contracts to educational and community groups to provide hands-on outreach and help to a fraction of the vulnerable populations who would soon be cut off. Another $2.7 million of this money went to AARP, to expand its call centers and talk seniors through the changeover process. The contract for call centers to handle the panic once the transition sets in has gone to IBM, to the tune of $12 million-which, based on the current situation, may well prove to be not enough.

2 responses to “I Want My DTV: Old Folks Get Shafted by the Switch to Digital Television

  1. I knew this would happen the day I saw the first first “notice” of the impending change–a rush of technobabble on a local station that would make sense only to those who have already struggled with setting up cable, DVD players, TiVo, etc.

    Of course most such people are not going to be needing those elusive “converters.” That still leaves everybody else.

    For 60 years, many seniors have been watching TV by plugging it into an electrical outlet and fooling with the rabbit ears–for free. This must seem utterly insane to them.

    Yet again, the greed of the private sector has been permitted to ruin a simple public freedom.

  2. The antenna issue is going to be a big thing, especially for folks living in fringe areas. Even after you’ve done everything right hooking up the converter box, some folks will be disappointed when they can only pick up a fraction of the digital TV stations (or no stations at all) than their current number of analog TV stations using the same existing rooftop antenna.

    This happend to my parents. Last summer, my father, who is 87 years old, climbed on the roof to hook up a mast mounted amplifier to boost reception, which only added acouple more channels after a rescan of the converter box.

    What did my parents eventually do? They now subscribe to cable TV. I think more will do the same as this article predicts.


    Eventually over the air television will be for the hobbyists with the tall TV towers with big antennas. It is no longer for the masses.

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