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Critics say word is not getting out on digital TV

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Austin Bogues
New York Times News Service / July 7, 2008

WASHINGTON - Consumer advocates will gather on Capitol Hill this week to lobby for more money to publicize the big change in television next February, when people who have analog TVs will no longer get any picture unless they have cable service or a digital converter box.

But would more publicity make any difference to people like Bertha Graham, who steadfastly refuse to make the switch?

Graham, 69, lives in Washington and owns four of the estimated 70 million televisions that rely on over-the-air signals to operate. She says she is perfectly content with her rabbit-ear antennas, which enable her to watch a few shows each day (most faithfully, "The Price is Right").

But on Feb. 17, 2009, Graham will no longer be able to see Drew Carey give away valuable prizes unless she pays $60 to $70 to buy a digital converter box, or obtains a government coupon that subsidizes $40 of the cost of a box (limit two coupons per customer).

Graham says she lives on a fixed income and does not have money for unplanned expenses. Her son has offered to get the converter boxes for her and help install them, but she has yet to accept his offer, saying that she disagrees with the whole thing on principle.

"You would expect this stuff in Cuba, the places where there is a dictatorship," Graham said. "You shouldn't have to buy converter boxes or do whatever they say to do. You should be able to use what you've got."

Washington officials are worried that millions of people like Graham will lose access to an important lifeline.

"Making the transition to digital is not simply a matter of being able to watch wrestling or 'American Idol' or reruns of `Friends,' " Mark Lloyd of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group, said at a congressional hearing in June. At stake, he said, "is the ability of the nation's most vulnerable populations to maintain uninterrupted access to their key source of news and information and emergency warnings: free, over-the-air television."

While some people are confused by the technology or have been given bad second-hand information about the process, others, like Graham, are just plain stubborn about it. ("It's not February yet," she said.)

Whatever the reason, officials say, last-minute demand for digital converter boxes could be so overwhelming that millions of people - many of them elderly, low-income, or disabled - will lose service.

Today, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights will release a report that criticizes the government's publicity efforts so far. "The cost of a Senate campaign in Ohio in 2006 was nearly $9 million," according to the group's news release, "but for the nationwide campaign to educate consumers about the DTV transition, Congress has so far allocated only $5 million."

The transition will disproportionately affect black and Hispanic households, according to Lloyd, who is the group's vice president for strategic initiatives. His organization wants the government to eliminate the expiration dates on discount coupons for converter boxes.

As of June 25, more than 17 million coupons had been mailed to consumers and 4.4 million had been redeemed. However, nearly one-10th of the coupons that have been mailed have already expired, according to Todd Sedmak, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

"It's still a work in progress. It's a steep hill," said Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat, who serves on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Anita Santiago, who is 45 and lives in Brooklyn, said that she and several friends had discussed their confusion about the transition. Few of her friends had seen the public service announcements on television promoting the change. "It's just really hitting now," she said.

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