The incoming Obama administration wants to clear the air regarding the switchover from analog to digital television, so it has sent a letter to Congress asking for an extension of the Feb. 17 conversion date in order to address “weaknesses” that it says are hurting consumers.
Neither the government agency distributing the coupons nor the trade association that represents the consumer electronics industry views those “weaknesses” — which include a lack of funding for consumer coupons to help pay for digital converter boxes — in the same light. They think the education campaign, which began in earnest in January 2008, is going well, and that most U.S. households with televisions are on track to make the switch to digital TV.
The Obama-Biden transition team has essentially taken the side of Consumers’ Union, which beat the president-elect by a day in asking Congress to delay the switchover.
“With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date,” transition team cochair John Podesta wrote in a Thursday letter to four Congressional committee chairmen and ranking members.
Statistics and Perceptions
“We’ll take all the friends we can get — no matter where they come from,” Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, told the E-Commerce Times. “We think right now is the time for everyone involved in the transition — Congress, the Commerce Department, the FCC, President Bush, President-elect Obama, the broadcasters, the electronics companies — to stop pointing fingers, which is what has been done all along for the past year and a half, and start looking for solutions to make sure millions of people have what they need to continue receiving broadcast signals.”
CU made its own case to Congress late Wednesday, asking for a delay after the government said it ran out of money to provide US$40 coupons that help consumers pay for the cost of a $50-$80 converter box. Consumers requesting the coupons are now put on a waiting list.
“We have a coupon program that melted down, and a federal government that made over $19 billion in the sale of this spectrum is now telling low-income and elderly consumers to reach into their own pockets and pay for this,” Sedmak said.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, has indeed put 1.3 million coupons on a waitlist, but because of the way the congressional mandate was set up, spokesperson Todd Sedmak says his agency is still capable of sending out 350,000 coupons per week.
So far, 19 million coupons have been redeemed, and there are 10 million in the hands of consumers, waiting to be cashed in for converter boxes. Seven million were requested in December alone, and Sedmak says redemption rates have been running at 53 percent so far.
The Consumers Union needs to consider the effectiveness of the DTV education campaign before requesting a delay, Sedmak told the E-Commerce Times. “The administration has always said a firm date helps consumers plan and be prepared, and we’re seeing that in droves. Our campaign is based on this: It’s not for a lack of information that people don’t make the switch, and it’s been very successful to date.”
Based on recent survey data, 12.6 million households that rely on TV with an antenna had requested coupons as of late December, Sedmak noted. “The people who have failed to prepare so far is a small number when you consider the universe” of American households with televisions. That number is estimated by the Consumer Electronics Association at around 110 million. An August 2008 survey had 9 percent of that number using only antennas to receive TV signals.
“The question you should take to the Consumers Union,” Sedmak said, ” is what does the number have to be that’s unprepared that it’s, quote, okay to make the transition with? Is it 100,000, 1 million, 2 million?”
The CEA’s Reaction
“Will every single household that relies on over-the-air be ready by the date? No,” CU’s Kelsey said, “but there are millions of Americans living in households that are not ready: low income, elderly, rural consumers that are being asked to pay for something they got for free. That, to us, is irresponsible.”
It would be just as irresponsible to delay the switchover date after months of hammering “Feb. 17th” into the minds of consumers via the millions of dollars spent on the education campaign, argued Megan Pollock, senior manager of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association.
“The most important piece out of all this is education. You can’t force people to do this,” Pollock told the E-Commerce Times. “It’s not a right that consumers have TV. You give them all the information and let them choose what to do.”
That includes taking into account all the variables and possibilities regarding coupons. “When we start looking at putting all the focus on the converter box coupon program, well, some people didn’t want that,” she pointed out. “Some people bought them; they wanted to have the option — and then they look at the date and say, ‘I really don’t need it.’ And yeah, some people forget the deadline and miss it. Those are things that are going to happen. It’s a coupon, like any other.”
The CEA, while opposing a delay, welcomes an evaluation of the program from the incoming Obama administration.
“I appreciate they’re taking a hard look at this,” said Pollock. “We hope they step back and see what has been done and see the successful track we are on. A lot of groups came together on this in a really unprecedented way — the government, companies, etc. — and we don’t typically work perfectly together as we have this past year. We think it would be a very big mistake, starting at square one, to make this transition really happen at a later date.”