I’m listening in to a conference call at the moment announcing the opening of DTV assistance centers. It’s the first time I’ve heard race raised as an issue in the conversion of television from analog to digital signals. But the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund has identified Minneapolis-St. Paul as one market where the communities of color, low-income workers, and the elderly are in danger of losing their TV.

The local TV stations are doing their part to alert viewers that the switch-over to digital transmission is coming and they better do something about it, while assuring people if they’ve got cable or satellite, they don’t have to do anything about it. KARE has recently cut its analog transmitting power by half, amid rumors that its newscasts now only feature only one anchor, only half of sports scores are now given, and the weather map no longer shows the entire western half of the United States.

There are some positive aspects of the end of analog signals. For one thing, Jon Gordon reported on Future Tense, it makes earth a “quieter place,” and — potentially could keep aliens from finding us.

Let’s hear what the conference call has to say. Hosting are: Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Meredith Baker, acting administrator at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an office of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has partnered with LCCREF on the DTV Assistance Centers; and Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self Help for the Elderly, a San Francisco, CA group that will be operating a DTV Assistance Center in the San Francisco Bay Area.


12:04 p.m. Henderson is providing background most of us already know. He says the shift is different than the switch from black-and-white to color. “At least then, if you didn’t have a color TV, you didn’t lose the signal.”

12:10 p.m. — Baker says 40 million coupons for converter boxes have been distributed to 11 million households. The average home has four TVs? (update 1:13 p.m. – I went back and listened again. 40 million coupons have been distributed to over 21 million households. 11 million of them say they actually needed the coupons.)

12:11 p.m. – If you haven’t applied for a coupon yet, you’re running out of time. Baker says it’ll take 6 weeks to complete the process. She says she’s asking state broadcaster associations to make donated converter boxes available for the elderly and low income. She also is asking people to help out the elderly by picking up the coupons and converter boxes for them — sort of a Converter Boxes on Wheels program.

12:17 p.m. – Filling out a page to request a coupon. I have satellite TV so I don’t really need one, but maybe some old person near me will need it on February 17.

Questions and Answers

Q:Who are you partnering with?

They’re still trying to find partners in each city (including the Twin Cities) that work with people of color, low-income, and elderly.

Q: How many people have done what they’re supposed to to TVs.

Consumer “awareness” of DTV conversion is 90 percent. But that percentage has not led to 90% action.

Q: Where is the funding for this coming from?

A: The money originates from the DTV Transition Act. We reserved up to $4.5 million for this.

Q: Some people in Detroit say stores are telling them their coupons have expired. People were advised to get their coupons early. They did but went to the stores and there were no converter boxes. So people through no fault of their own have worthless coupons. Why are there expiration dates on these. (Here’s a Detroit Free Press story on this)

A: Congress mandated that the program start in January. Retailers couldn’t update their software during the holiday season. We monitored product shortages and we’ve addressed it. It’s important in our tracking to have a 90 day expiration.

(The reporter here is really pushing the person in charge here. “You mean we can have a charity drive to give our coupons to other people?” )

Q: Are your centers going to just tell people with expired coupons to “go home and find a friend or neighbor who has a coupon.”

A: Chung says some people living in apartment buildings couldn’t get coupons because they shared the same address with someone who already got them. So she helped set up a drive in San Francisco to get people to donate converter boxes to give to people who had expired coupons.

Q: How many assistance centers will there be?

A: Seven cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, will have assistance centers.

Q: Do you know how many people these assistance centers are targeted to reach?

A: No.

Q: When will you provide people with the location of these assistance centers?

A: We hope to finalize the partnerships soon. People can check our Web site at . We hope to have them set up by early January.

They wrapped up the conference call before they could take my question, which was: If people are being advised to request their coupons by the end of December, what good is an assistance center that won’t be set up until January?

Update 1:42 p.m. One Minnesota community is among the lowest-participating communities in the DTV converter box coupon program. In Mankato, 3,513 households requested the coupons. That’s an estimated 54% of over-the-air households in Mankato. About a quarter-million Minneapolis-St. Paul households have requested the coupon — a 61% participation rate. Duluth (75%) has one of the highest participation rates. For what it’s worth, three of the four worst participation rates are in Alaska . See the report.

  • Jim!!!

    Clem Birch is our new friend. Clem says “DON’T PANIC!”

    Actually, our experience with converter boxes is good. They work well except when planes fly over (we’re on the flight path), when the newscasters sometimes take on a ghoulish appearance of melting like the nazi ark seeker in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  • Bruce

    The last time I had the TV on was to watch the coverage when the bridge collapsed.

    Has there been any news since?

    Seriously, the news I get from MPR and the papers. As long as they keep going, I think I’m better off.

  • bsimon

    ‘Baker says 40 million coupons for converter boxes have been distributed to 11 million households. The average home has four TVs?”

    One or more of the above numbers must have been said in error. The Feds will only send 2 coupons to a household.

  • Bob Collins

    I just listened to it again. The actual math is they’ve mailed out 40 million coupons to 21 million households. 11 million of the households said they get over-the-air TV.

  • mikeD

    Who benefits off this whole conversion, or why are we doing this? How does this benefit the media companies?

    Why do we need to switch and make millions of PLASTIC converter boxes that probably contain rare minerals from Africa, right?

    Converter boxes that will be made/sold and thrown away and replaced cause they break in a couple of years. Great!

    How about we save the money for the converter box coupons and invest in outside time where the public legally has to go outside.

  • Stephen Margolis

    If anyone needs help with DTV, I have an analog TV and a Tivax STB-T9 in the trunk of my car. I have a loop antenna and a Terk HDTVo Yagi antenna. I can just drive up to their location and let them know whether they can receive DTV with an indoor antenna.

    Reception in Cottage Grove with a simple loop is perfect.

    It is 18 miles away from Shoreview.