Winners and Losers of the Digital Transition


For several years now, trend watchers and tech gurus have been assuring Americans that the digital age is upon them. This despite the fact that, according to a 2008 study by Parks Associates, 21 percent of Americans have never looked at a Web site or never sent or received an e-mail. In other words, one-fifth of the country's population has avoided setting foot in the digital world. But come Feb. 17, most of those people will set foot in it -- or, more accurately, be pulled, dragged or thrust into it -- whether they like it or not.
At the stroke of midnight, all full-power TV stations in the United States will shut off their airwave broadcasting signals, bringing analog transmission to an end after 78 years. The 20 million households that still use antennas to pull in a signal will be staring at screens of nothing but confetti.

They will, that is, if they don't do something to prevent it. The "digital transition," as it's come to be called, puts the onus on consumers to make sure that their TVs are ready to receive an all-digital signal. Since September 2007, the National Assn. of Broadcasters has spent in excess of $1 billion to tell consumers that they have to act. NAB has launched some 16 spots that alert Americans to the imminent transition and the need to purchase a converter box if they expect their old sets to keep working.

It's a straightforward plan, but so far it seems to have generated just as much confusion as awareness. Observers now say that, while most Americans know that the change is coming, millions of them have no idea what to do about it.

According to Nielsen data, 6.8 percent of U.S. households were, as of last month, unprepared for the changeover.

Maybe that's no wonder. Converter boxes, for example, can be purchased with the help of $40 coupons (up to two per household) that are free from the Federal Communications Commission. The easiest way to get the vouchers is to go online and visit, but the digitally illiterate populations most in need of the converters are also the least likely to have Web access. Nor is a consumer who's still using rabbit-ear antennas likely to pop on over to to check out the FAQs. This federally sponsored catch-22 has resulted in a number of YouTube parodies, one of which shows an elderly woman wrapped in wires, who asks: "How many w's are there in the Web address?"

Another problem, according to Martin Franks, CBS evp of planning, policy and government relations, is the basic human tendency to put things off. "Judging by the amount of people filling out tax returns at 11 p.m. on April 14," he says, "procrastination is part of the American psyche."

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