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Civil rights group warns of digital TV troubles

July 7, 2008 |  3:26 pm

Deadtv Television started out as a luxury. But in the Information Age, it has become a vital way for many people -- particularly technophobes or those who can't afford the Internet -- to stay connected to the world. In February, that connection could be lost in millions of households because of "an absence of clear federal leadership" in educating them about the digital TV transition, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.   

The group today sharply criticized federal officials for lousy outreach to vulnerable communities, such as the elderly, the poor and minorities, as the government-mandated switch to all-digital broadcast television approaches. In a detailed report titled "Transition in Trouble," the coalition of civil rights organizations called on Congress to increase funding for educating people who need to take steps to avoid losing the ability to view over-the-air TV on Feb. 18 (the picture would look something like that to the left, minus the sad face).

"Access to communications in the 21st century is not a luxury. It’s a necessity," Nancy Zirkin, the group's executive vice president, told reporters on a conference call.

The report warned that many people "will suffer significant harm" if federal officials don't improve their outreach efforts and eliminate problems with the government's converter box coupon program, which the report described as "confusing, burdensome and restrictive." To help ease the transition for people who use antennas to get broadcast TV on older analog sets, the government is offering ...

... each household two $40 coupons to buy inexpensive digital-to-analog converter boxes. But those coupons expire 90 days after you receive them, which can be a problem if local stores don't have a good selection of boxes.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, a former chief executive of Kellogg's, recently dismissed suggestions his agency should extend the expiration date, noting that his experience in the cereal business was that "90 days is pretty much the expiration you have on most coupons."

Mark Lloyd, vice president of strategic initiatives for the civil rights group, took issue with that remark, saying, "People don’t rely on cereal to warn them about tornadoes or hurricanes." One big impact of the digital TV transition is on the portable analog sets that people use when they lose power in such emergencies, as we noted in this story today.

Broadcasters and the cable industry are running their own public education campaigns, and recent polls show awareness of the transition increasing. The National Assn. of Broadcasters said today that polling it conducted this spring showed 85% of African-Americans were aware of the transition, up from 73% in January. The same poll found that overall awareness of the transition in California was 88%.

Lloyd says the broadcasters are doing a good job, but that the government needs to step up its game. He argues that the digital transition needs a government czar, just like the effort to prepare computers for the Y2K problem at the end of 1999.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights noted that the cost of a U.S. Senate campaign in Ohio was $9 million in 2006. So far, Congress has allocated only about $7.5 million for education about the digital TV transition.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo by daedalicious, via Flickr

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