June 10, 2008 -- Eight months from now, millions of televisions nationwide could go black when networks switch from analog to digital signals, and according to a new government survey, more than half of the affected households don't even know it.
On Feb. 17, 2009, television stations will start broadcasting in digital signals to free airwaves for public safety announcements and wireless providers. While efforts are well under way to educate consumers about the switch, new data released today by the investigative arm of Congress found that almost half of the 13 million households that could lose service are not prepared for the digital TV conversion.
"While general awareness of the DTV transition is high, there are indications that some consumers are confused or unknowledgeable about the transition, as 45 percent of those households who are at risk plan no action or inadequate action to prepare for the transition," Mark Goldstein at the Government Accountability Office said in written testimony submitted for today's hearing before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly concerned, with today's hearing the fifth one the subcommittee has held on the subject.
"The GAO results underscore, for instance, that many consumers do not yet fully understand the ramifications of the transition," Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., said in his prepared opening statement, noting that the data indicates "significant consumer confusion."
The government watchdog group also found that 55 percent of people are aware of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's program to mail out coupons for $40 discounts on converter boxes to requesting households. The boxes, which sell for about $60 without the discount, would allow people to watch digital programming on analog TV sets.
"We will need to examine how best to calibrate the consumer education campaigns to yield not only ever greater consumer awareness, but also more accurate knowledge across the country about what consumers may need to do, or not do, and how best to prepare the nation for the future of television," Markey said.
Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, touted FCC efforts to educate consumers, promising to do whatever it takes to make the conversion an easy one.
"The commission is devoting significant resources to facilitate a smooth transition," Martin said in his written testimony. "We intend to take whatever actions are necessary to minimize the potential burden the digital transition could impose on consumers and maximize their ability to benefit from it. It is my hope that through the combined efforts of government, industry, and advocacy groups, American consumers will reap the rewards that the digital transition has to offer."
Still, even Martin acknowledged that "too many Americans remain confused about what they need to do to prepare for [the transition]."
Congress has given the National Telecommunications and Information Administration $5 million for consumer education efforts. The agency, a branch of the Department of Commerce, has joined forces with other groups such as AARP and the National Association of Broadcasters and numerous major electronics retailers to educate the public. In her prepared testimony, the telecommunications administration's Bernadette McGuire-Rivera noted that as of June 3, the agency had received requests from 8,511,871 households for 16,038,539 coupons, an average of 104,000 per day.
"It is clear that these consumer education efforts are succeeding," McGuire-Rivera said. "The coupon application numbers speak for themselves."
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at marketing research firm NPD, cautioned that there is still a long way to go before February's transition date and, as the switch approaches, consumers will become more motivated to take action. But, he told ABC News, some people will always wait until the last minute.
"It is a major undertaking and there will certainly be consumers that don't act and risk losing television until very late in the process -- and certainly some of them will not act until after the signal is turned off, but the good news is that it's a relatively quick thing to remedy by buying a converter box or buying a new TV."
At least one witness at today's hearing was not so optimistic. Mark Lloyd of the Strategic Initiatives Leadership Conference on Civil Rights warned in his submitted testimony that "the nation is not prepared for the shut-off of full-power analog television broadcasting; there is, in brief, too little funding for research, education and outreach."
"Millions rely on broadcasting for emergency information, school closings, and the news and public affairs programming so necessary for local democratic engagement," Lloyd said. "We are concerned that the disproportionate impact of this transition will result in a greater divide between those who have access to vital information and those who do not."
As of today, those millions of potentially affected people have 252 days and counting to get ready for the conversion. If they don't, they could be staring at black TV screens come February.