Digital Debacle

article image

Even if you only watch TV while you’re visiting friends or when the library is closed, you might want to tune in to the following statistics, which suggest that our broadcast system is about to be tested by an emergency.

Nearly half of U.S. households have no idea when the coming transition from analog to digital television will occur, according to survey results published last winter by the trade group Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. This means that on February 17, 2009, some portion of the 17 percent of U.S. households that use antennae for reception, instead of cable or satellite, may well experience an unexpected TV blackout.

Even among Americans who do claim to know about the transition, an alarming number (some 25 percent) mistakenly believe they need to throw out their analog sets, according to a survey released in January 2008 by the Consumers Union.

Factor in the number of people who are using the signal change as an excuse to buy a newfangled TV, as well as those who don’t know how to dispose of toxic electronic waste properly, and the next installment in the TV age promises to get a low rating from Mother Earth. “That is an alarming picture of a lot of electronic waste going to landfills, which is a huge environmental issue,” says Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with the Consumers Union.

Mass e-waste (and general confusion) could be avoided if the message got out. But the U.S. government, which mandated the switch to digital, is spending a relatively small amount on education: $5 million. Compare that to the $400 million the United Kingdom set aside for education on its transition, which began recently and will continue into early 2009.

What’s worse, the elderly, the poor, and non-English speakers–precisely the sort of people who are most likely to abruptly fall off the digital grid–are also the hardest to reach, reports the Gotham Gazette (Feb. 26, 2008). In part, this is because they often don’t have easy access to the Internet, where so much information about the pending shift is available. These groups don’t just stand to lose entertainment; they also would lose access to news and emergency information.

One of the stories that these at-risk groups need to hear is that analog TVs will work with the aid of a converter box. The federal government will offset the cost of the $40 to $70 boxes, available at electronics retailers, by giving each household two $40 coupons. Of course, information about how to request coupons is primarily available online (

As many as 9 million households may find that they also need to invest in a rooftop antenna to capture digital signals, says Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president at the market research firm Centris. Viewers whose analog sets are hooked up to cable or satellite should be able to watch with no interruption.

The Federal Communications Commission has done the best it can with what it has, holding workshops focusing on ways to inform the at-risk groups noted in the Gotham Gazette, as well as rural and tribal populations, says spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball. Resources are limited, however. The FCC received just $1.5 million to educate the public. Kimball says the agency has asked Congress for an additional $20 million.

The DTV Transition Coalition, made up of business, trade, and industry groups, has sponsored TV spots explaining the coming transition and the converter box coupon program. You also might have seen ads from your local cable company trumpeting the fact that cable customers don’t have to worry about the switchover.

By leaving the educational message to industry, the U.S. government has created a situation that’s ripe for misleading already confused consumers into thinking that they need new televisions or should pay for cable service. The Shepherd Express (April 13, 2008) reports that the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group’s recent “secret shopper” surveys in Madison and Milwaukee revealed that many retailers were spreading incorrect information about the digital transition, the converter boxes, and the government coupons.

“There’s nothing wrong with relying on industry,” Kelsey says. “There is something wrong with taking advantage of consumer confusion when the government takes its hands off the steering wheel. If it doesn’t help consumers cut through the noise, we have a giant problem, which is what we’re seeing now.

“We need to invest in public education and not allow industry to supply all the diverse and confusing messages.”

Resources: Don’t Trash Your TV

If you decide to get a new digital TV, don’t throw your old set in the garbage. Harmful heavy metals like lead and mercury contaminate landfills, posing health hazards if they leak into soil and waterways. If your set ends up in an incinerator, burning plastics pollute the air. According the Environmental Protection Agency, only 12.5 percent of e-waste is recycled, largely because there aren’t enough convenient options for recycling.

The Electronic TakeBack Coalition’s “Take Back My TV” campaign ( strives to get electronics manufacturers to collect unwanted TVs. So far, only Sony has signed on, creating some 75 free drop-off sites across the country. Green lifestyle magazine Plenty (April-May 2008) suggests visiting, where you can look for nearby recyclers. Alternatively, consider posting your old set on

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.