April 15, 2008 -- As "D Day" for the transition from analog TV signals to digital ones nears, everyone from consumers to retailers to the government seems to be either confused or frustrated about how to handle the switch.
On Feb. 17, 2009, television stations will begin broadcasting in digital signals instead of analog, freeing up valuable airwaves for both public safety announcements and wireless providers.
Televisions that receive their programming via "rabbit ear" antennas, instead of cable or satellite service, will no longer receive broadcast programming.
The switch also means that eventually so-called "tube" televisions will become obsolete, at least for watching live programming. But that fact, along with warnings from the Federal Communications Commission, hasn't stopped some retailers from selling the outmoded technology.
Last week, the FCC fined seven major consumer electronics retailers, including Wal-Mart and Circuit City, millions of dollars for failing to attach a warning label to its analog TVs and accessories that stated the technology would no longer work after February 2009. Sears Holdings Corp. received the largest fine -- $1.1 million -- for violations in Sears and Kmart stores.
Sears and Best Buy told ABCNEWS.com that they were surprised at the fines and that they had been working with the FCC to educate the public and get the analog sets off their shelves.
But Chris Murray, senior counsel at the Consumer's Union, a consumer advocacy organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, wasn't surprised.
"These fines against electronics retailers who are still selling analog TV sets shows that consumers need to be asking questions. They can't count on the government or the electronics retailer to have taken care of this problem for them," he said.
"The government is relying on the consumer marketplace to do the consumer education here," Murray said.
About 98 percent of Americans have an analog television in their home, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. According to surveys done in 2007 by the National Association of Broadcasters, 60 percent of Americans don't know about the change at all.
To combat this, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Commerce, has joined with several groups such as the AARP and National Association of Broadcasters as well as nearly every major consumer electronics retailer, to educate the public about the switch.
Electronics manufacturers have also created converter boxes for people with analog sets. The boxes will allow people to watch digital programming on their analog sets. Households can get coupons from NTIA for $40 off a box at participating retailers.
"The truth of the matter is that I really don't think we're very well prepared," Murray said. "We're talking about moving the entire nation from analog to digital. This is one of those things that we've been waiting for.… So it's not like we didn't know this was coming. It's not like we didn't know what it would look like when it came. And it's not like we didn't have other countries that were good examples."
Congress has awarded the NTIA $5 million for education efforts. In contrast, when the United Kingdom made a similar switch, it spent $400 million in education efforts on a much smaller population, according to Murray.
Consumers have also complained about unknowledgeable salespeople and problems finding the boxes on the shelves, according to NTIA spokesman Bart Forbes.
Forbes says that the level of knowledge you get could largely depend on what kind of store you go to; a salesperson at a consumer electronics store is likely to know more about the transition than say a salesperson at Wal-Mart, he said.
"Yes it's very frustrating. … But it's happening," Forbes said. "As you know, we were granted $5 million. That's why the support of [our partners] is so critical to get the word out."
Shermaze Ingram, a spokeswoman at the National Association of Broadcasters, which has its own DTV transition campaign, acknowledges the problem, but remains optimistic.
"It's an ongoing effort. Our hope is that this is something that gets worked out," Ingram said. "But we also know that it's extremely important that a consumer go into the store with that knowledge so they're not relying entirely on a store or a person in the store.… It's always better if you have some idea of what you're getting into before you get into the store."
To that end, the NAB is crisscrossing the country in a giant van, visiting county fairs and air shows to target people in the most at-risk communities: the elderly, people who live in rural areas and non-English speakers.
But education efforts aren't the only challenges facing the transition. Manufacturers don't want people to buy a government-subsidized converter box; they want people to buy a new television, according to NPD consumer electronics analyst Ross Rubin.
"One challenge in terms of these converter boxes is that the high-volume consumer electronics companies aren't commercially motivated to sell these boxes," Rubin said. "They're very inexpensive. … They would much rather have consumers upgrade to a digital television."
Poorer families face problems as well in the transition, according to Rubin.
"The challenge is for poorer families who might need to save up for some time if they don't realize that this is coming. It may take some time," he said.
Tips for Consumers
Amid the confusion, the Consumer's Union's Murray has tips for people wondering what to do.
"First, find out if you need to do anything. It may be that you own a digital television," he said.
If you don't have a digital television, you may be in the clear if you have cable or satellite service.
"But ask your cable provider if there's going to be additional costs to make the switch to digital," Murray said.
Those without cable or satellite need to think about getting one of the converter boxes.
They also need to be aware of what they need to do to stay tuned in.
A Consumer's Union project is one good place to start. It offers links, background and a free Consumer Reports guide.
Source: Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)
An excellent resource for those looking to learn more about digital, over-the-air reception, with detailed information about different kinds of antennas and how to install them.
Source: National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce
The essential resource for converter box coupons. Good, basic information, and it's multilingual, to boot.
Source: National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)
Source: DTV Transition Coalition (a group of associations, retailers and manufacturers involved in DTV)
Links to approved converter boxes, also in Spanish.
Source: Federal Communications Commission