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Digital TV transition: Don't wait until February

September 18, 2008 |  3:23 pm
Digital Converter Box Coupon

A funny thing happened when LG Electronics began selling its Zenith digital converter box in January: People couldn't figure out the remote control.

The boxes enable analog television sets to receive digital signals from broadcasters. But some people who bought them didn't realize that they should first remove the protective plastic wrap from the AA battery than came with the device. This alone accounted for 10% of the 27,000 converter-related calls the Korean company received between January and the end of August.

Although that's a tiny fraction of the 1 million customers who purchased the device in that time period, LG and other companies that make converter boxes are urging people to get their converters now, before the night of Feb. 17. At the stroke of midnight that day, TV stations will cease to broadcast over-the-air signals and go all-digital. There's not likely to be chaos, but there could be hiccups if everyone who needs a converter box waits until the last minute, said John I. Taylor, LG's vice president of government affairs.

"We don't anticipate any catastrophic results," Taylor said in an interview Wednesday. "But will there be challenges? Absolutely."

One possible scenario is a temporary run on converter boxes. Manufacturers typically don't make ...

... the devices until they receive orders from retailers, and both are wary of stocking too many devices and being left with dead inventory. So they may end up being overly conservative and producing too few units.

The consumer electronics industry estimates that Americans will need between 25 million and 28 million converters for TV sets that rely on antennas and are currently capable of receiving only traditional broadcast signals. But because there are dozens of competing manufacturers, each has to guess what its sales are likely to be.

So retailers and manufacturers are urging consumers to act now and avoid the rush. The first step is to apply for a coupon for $40 off the purchase of a digital converter (you can do that here). More than 2,300 retailers accept the coupon, which should cover most but not all of the cost for a converter box, which generally retails for $50 to $70. Don't know which converter box to buy? Check out Bit Player's post on what to look for when shopping for a box.

Note that the coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed. Close to half of the coupons expire without being redeemed, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency that runs the $1.3-billion coupon program. So far, 10 million coupons have been redeemed, at a rate of about 50,000 a day.

"Apply for the coupon, buy your box and try it out now," Taylor said.

-- Alex Pham

Photo by Alex Pham / Los Angeles Times