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Converting to digital TV

An effort at a South Los Angeles church emphasizes the need for grass-roots work to get people ready for the federally mandated cutoff of local stations' analog signals.

February 11, 2009

Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein took to the pulpit Monday at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, preaching about the need to convert the masses -- to digital TV. His message was one that local ministers needed to hear, and that other community leaders also should take to heart.

According to the latest estimate from Nielsen Co., nearly 6 million households across the country are unprepared for the federally mandated analog TV cutoff, meaning that they have no way to tune in their local stations' digital channels. Homes with cable or satellite TV service are at least partially ready -- those services' set-top boxes can convert digital signals into the analog ones understood by older sets. So are homes with new sets that have built-in digital tuners. But those with analog TVs that receive programming through antennas will need converter boxes to tune in local digital broadcasts.

Congress recently passed a bill to push the analog cutoff from next Tuesday to June 12, giving consumers more time. Yet as the FCC knows from trial runs in North Carolina and Hawaii, a small percentage of TV viewers won't be able to complete the process of buying and connecting a digital converter box, no matter how much time they have to do it. That small percentage translates into a big number nationally -- more than 100,000 in Los Angeles alone, by Nielsen's last estimate. Besides, many communities won't have the extra four months to prepare. According to the FCC, 681 local stations, or more than 40% of all local broadcasters, plan to shut off their analog channels by Tuesday. That list includes more than a dozen in Los Angeles County.

That's why Adelstein was in the Mount Moriah pulpit Monday, urging ministers to gather volunteers to help their communities wire TVs for the new era of broadcasting. Government can provide subsidies to help people https:// www.dtv2009.gov/ "> www.dtv2009.gov/ -- $1.34 billion initially, with an additional $650 million in the pending economic stimulus package -- but it can't provide hands-on help to obtain a federal coupon, select a box and connect it. Churches and other community-based groups are in the best position to perform those duties, in part because they're in the best position to identify the people most likely to need help. Nielsen's surveys show that despite near-universal awareness of the impending transition, elderly viewers are less likely than the typical household to be ready, as are African American and Latino families. Analog channels may be staying on the air for a few more months, but the time to start the grass-roots work is now.

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