Come Feb. 17, 2009, millions of Black TV owners may turn on their television sets and see a blank screen or hear only static-fuzz after major broadcasting companies switch from "analog" to "digital" only programming. Digital television "enables broadcasters to offer television with better pictures and sound quality," says the DTV website, dtv.gov, going on to explain that the transition will free up analog airwaves which then can be used to enhance systems currently used by public safety operations; i.e., police, fire and emergency rescue departments.
Once the transition takes place, only TV sets with digital broadcast capability will be able to receive and display transmissions. According to Nielsen, the ratings giant, many Black households are not ready for the Feb. change and, according to some activists, are on the verge of being left on the vacant side of the digital divide. This after many of them joined on to support and vote for Barack Obama, the first Black elected to the office of president, yet they may be left out in the technological cold; unable to keep up with news and information surrounding the historic president once he takes office.
"[Nielsen] shows that 12.5% of African American households are using analog television and are not ready for the digital transition," wrote Wade Henderson, President/CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, in a recent news release. Since early 2008, a campaign has been underway to inform the viewing public of their options and how to prepare for the coming change. Those who wish to retain television service have three choices: (1) keep their analog TV (most which require "rabbit-ear" or rooftop antennas) and purchase a converter box which will translate analog programming to digital; (2) purchase a TV set which was made after Mar. 1, 2007 – the date that, per a Federal Communications Commission ruling, all new TVs had to have digital tuners; (3) subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service which do not require converter boxes for digital reception. Many cable companies are now offering special deals to new customers to prepare them for the February change; however, some companies may still require additional equipment for digital viewing. Consumers should inquire prior to contracting service.
Since January, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has been in charge of a coupon program set to run through March, whereby households can request up to two coupons; each offering a $40 discount off the price of a converter box.
Due to the late date, there is now a waiting list and even if requested now, it is unclear when a family might receive them, but the boxes can still be purchased and installed after that date. Coupons can be requested by mail, phone or internet and purchases can be made at local or online stores, or via phone retailers.
The manager of a Denver Radio Shack – one of the select stores authorized to sell converter boxes – said they are selling very well. Wishing to remain anonymous, the woman said that if government coupons run out, boxes can still be purchased at the regular $59.99 price. She then went on to explain that many customers come in with questions and are somewhat confused about what DTV is and why the change is taking place; questions her staff associates have undergone special training in order to answer. Additionally, some, she said, have been given false information as to what kind of antenna they will need. She added that, along with the the converter box, analog viewers will also need a powered or amplified UHF/VHS antenna. The store is making many exchanges and upgrades to the powered antenna which ranges in price from $34.99 to 99.99.
Questions have also been raised as to whether senior citizens will be left behind when the switch happens but if a report from Denver's Zion Senior Center is any indication, community elders have been ahead of the curve on the issue. Center Director Margaret McCaskill said approximately 30 seniors come to the center daily and those who are heads of household bought converter boxes and had them installed well before Thanksgiving. "We're active in this," she said.
Henderson wants no one to be left behind and encourages politicians, corporate, community and civic leaders to make sure their communities are informed. He went on to suggest the following activities: post community and office flyers; newsletter, bulletin and newspaper announcements; email all contacts in your address book, and organize or attend community conversion education events. To request converter box coupons and get more DTV information, visit www.DTV2009.gov; call 1-888-388-2009, or write DTV, PO Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208.
Adeeba Folami is a freelance journalist residing in Denver, Colorado. She can be contacted via her website http://bhonline.org.