Although Congress attempted to delay the digital television transition from Feb. 17 to June 12, television stations told The Skanner they never planned to wait.
That's because delaying the switch to all-digital would have cost stations a lot of money.
Consumers without digital receivers, cable or satellite service will have to attach a digital converter box to the analogue antennae, or get a brand new television.
The switchboard operator of KING-5 TV told callers Tuesday that the station plans on switching Feb. 6.
According to Tom Hayden of Oregon Public Broadcasting, not making the switch would have cost OPB $65,000 in electricity alone. Across America, it would cost the Public Broadcasting Service $22 million to put off the transition until June.
Officials in Portland and Seattle had already stepped in to help unprepared consumers. Jonathan Lawson of Seattle's Reclaim the Media organization, says too many households will lack digital converters when the analogue signals die.
"People just aren't ready," he said.
In Portland, a number of organizations – including the Urban League, IRCO and Elders in Action — have partnered with City Commissioner Amanda Fritz and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund to provide information and access for the transition.
"It's a national issue people are grappling with all over the country," said Midge Purcell of the Portland Urban League. "Many are aware … but it's not on some people's radar. People who haven't acted in a timely manner will find themselves without television (on Feb. 18)."
One of the major concerns of organizers is the growing waiting list for converter box coupons. In Portland, the Immigrant and Refugee Center has established a DTV Assistance Center at their offices on 10301 NE Glisan St. The center will hold coupon waiting list drives, distribute coupons into communities, offer technical support and even travel to some high-need residences. Oregon Public Broadcasting is also operating a call center for the transition at 800-241-8123.
"We're opening our center to help Portland residents smoothly transition to digital TV," said Rob Kidirov of IRCO. "Folks who use rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna for over-the-air television signals will need a converter box. If they haven't already signed up for the government coupon program, that provides a discount on the converter box, people should get on the new waiting list now."
In Seattle, city officials are calling on stores to offer converter boxes at the same price as the discount coupon. Currently, no retail outlets in Seattle offer a $40 or $45 box – the cheapest box in Seattle stores is $60. Mayor Greg Nickels and the city council have sent letters to local electronics retailers in an attempt ensure at least one consumer option is available for free – if a consumer is able to obtain a coupon and use it before its expiration date.
"The cost of these converter boxes is a burden for low-income people, who are also the most dependent on over-the-air TV," Lawson said. "Problems with the federal coupon program are making the boxes even more expensive. Retailers ought to provide the entire range of consumer choice. The $40 boxes are out there. Why aren't they on the shelves of stores in Seattle?"
Portland's Elders in Action are helping older Oregonians to obtain coupons, converter boxes and technical assistance for the conversion. They're encouraging community members to reach out to senior citizens about the conversion. Elders in Action are also collecting extra, unexpired coupons, converter boxes or digital antennas.
Leslie Foren, director of operations for Portland's Elders in Action, says they're trying to reach the most vulnerable seniors who rely on television not just for entertainment but also for access to news and information.
Elders in Action is partnering with Loaves and Fishes, the Meals on Wheels people, to ensure homebound seniors are aware of the conversion and have a way to convert their televisions.
"People can still get boxes at a reasonable rate, but the availability of low cost boxes is diminishing," the Urban League's Purcell said.
The best advice organizers are giving people is simple: Be prepared no matter what Congress does.
The Seattle DTV hotline will be available on Feb. 1 at 206-508-1277 or online at www.seattledtv.com. Other assistance includes:
• Jefferson Community Center
3801 Beacon Ave S; 206-684-7481; M-F, 5 — 9 p.m.
• Rainier Community Center
4600 38th Ave S; 206-386-1919; M-F, 5 – 9 p.m.
• Van Asselt Community Center
2820 S. Myrtle St.; 206-386-1921; M-F, 5 – 9 p.m.
• Yesler Community Center
917 E. Yesler Way; 206-386-1245; M-F, 5 – 9 p.m.
• Burien Community Center (for Spanish speakers).425 SW 144th St.; 206-988-3760. Their hotline begins Feb. 2.
Seattle Council Schedules HearingsSeattle Council Schedules Hearings
Seattle Council Schedules Hearings
Seattle Council Schedules Hearings
On Jan. 29 at 2 p.m., Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Council's Energy and Technology Committee, will convene a special meeting with members of the City's Department of Information Technology, Office of Cable Communications, and the Customer Service Bureau to discuss the City's plan for preparing citizens for the digital television transition scheduled to take place on Feb. 17.
The meeting is part of the Council's plan to ensure that residents who own analog-signal televisions understand that these televisions will not be equipped to receive the new digital signal on and after Feb. 17 unless a digital converter box is installed. Analog television sets without a digital converter box will cease to function next month.
It is estimated that some 6.5 million U.S. households to date are not ready for the transition, and the Federal Commerce Department has reached its $1.34 billion limit for providing $40 coupon subsidies to mitigate the cost of digital converter boxes for consumers.
Members of the Seattle City Council are concerned that without these subsidies, the cost of converter boxes -- between $55 and $100 at local retailers -- could create a financial burden for lower income citizens.
To help lessen this cost impact, last week the Council distributed a letter to local electronics retailers requesting that they add to their existing inventory $40 to $45 DTV converter boxes equipped with closed captioning and analog pass-through capabilities.
On Monday the U.S. Senate voted to extend the digital transition deadline to June 12, with the House expected to pass similar legislation this week.
If an extension is granted, it is likely that additional funding for the $40 coupon program will be provided. Whatever the deadline, though, many citizens -- potentially some 31,000 Seattle area households -- remain unprepared for the digital transition.