Right converter box key to digital TV switch

Southern Oregon, Northern California at risk of programming blackouts next year

Southern Oregon and its surroundings are high on the list of regions that are susceptible to programming blackouts after the switch to all-digital television after Feb. 17, 2009 — but only if consumers buy the wrong type of converter box, an industry rep warns.

"It's a minority of viewers, and in most cases, it's going to be a small minority, but it will be an issue," says Jonathan Collegio, vice president of digital television transition for the National Association of Broadcasters. "We're looking at the Brookings area, and into Yreka and Mount Shasta (Calif.) as the biggest potential problem spots."

Free converter-box coupons offered

The Commerce Department, through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration, offers two $40 coupons per household to be used toward the purchase of converter boxes. They will be sold under brands including Magnavox, Echostar, Philips, RCA and Zenith. To receive digital and analog programming, make sure the box has analog pass-through capabilities. The coupons can be ordered online and have a 90-day expiration date.

To get coupons online, go to www.dtv2009.gov or call 888-388-2009

Let the buyer beware

Converter boxes have been on sale at major retailers for months.

However, boxes with analog pass-through capabilities might not be available in some markets until mid-June or later. (The free $40 coupons for buying a box have a 90-day expiration date, so some people have been forced to buy boxes without pass-through technology.)

A spot check of Medford stores, including Radio Shack, Circuit City, Wal-Mart and Larson's, found that none were selling an analog pass-through-capable box.

Larson's has not stocked its boxes yet, a salesman says.

A Radio Shack employee says the store's Zenith DTT900 converter box could be fitted with an add-on "for around 14 dollars" to make it analog pass-through-capable. Circuit City also sells the Zenith model, an employee says.

A Wal-Mart employee says the store sells the RCA DTA800 model, but only the RCA DTA800B1 model has pass-through capabilities, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Web site, which lists pass-through-capable boxes. Visit it at www.ntiadtv.gov.

The NAB, acting with the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, recently sent a team to the Medford area to spread the word about buying the right converter box to handle the switch-over, mainly because the region has so many translators beaming signals into far-flung areas. Once full-power broadcast stations go all-digital, residents who use an antenna and own an analog TV will see a blank screen unless they buy a converter box or upgrade to a new TV that has a built-in digital tuner.

Moreover, low-power and translator stations are not required to make the switch next year, so some of their analog programming could be blocked by converter boxes that don't have "analog pass-through capabilities," Collegio says.

Consumers who subscribe to satellite or cable TV will be unaffected by the switch.

Collegio was part of the team that came to Medford, and for good reason. He grew up in Jacksonville and graduated from South Medford High School in 1994. He majored in political science and economics at the University of Oregon, and in 2006, he was the spokesman for Republicans in U.S. House races.

Collegio says he joined the NAB after industry officials quickly realized that getting the word out about the switch to all-digital TV would take a campaign-like effort.

In fact, the NAB contacted DTV-to-analog converter-box manufacturers in January, asking them to incorporate analog pass-through capacity in their boxes, according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine.

"It will particularly impact your region," Collegio says, noting that of the 210 designated market areas in the United States — DMAs are where several network affiliates compete against each other — Medford has more translators than 90 percent of the other DMAs.

Viewers watching a translator feed will tune to a different affiliate station channel number than what appears on station advertising brands, Collegio says, noting the common affiliate numbers of 5 (NBC), 10 (CBS), 12 (ABC) and 13 (Fox) in the Medford area.

While there is ample time left to make the switch, Collegio says industry insiders worry that some people already have unwittingly purchased converter boxes that don't have the analog pass-through option.

"Consumer awareness (about digital TV) has more than doubled in the past year," he says, "and more than a billion dollars is being spent on education, but we still have concerns."

Collegio says people wanting more information also can visit the NAB's digital TV education Web site at www.dtvanswers.com.

"We have everything on there that you could possibly need to know," he says.

Reach Troy Heie at 776-4474, or e-mail theie@charter.net

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