The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
A sign alerts customers Circuit City
customers that the labled television
won't be able to receive over-the-air
channels starting in 2009.
Roberto Gonzalez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT
Now, Cantrell, an 83-year-old retiree living on a fixed income, understands why the deal looked so good. The 34-inch Toshiba he bought for his family room may be obsolete in less than two years, when broadcasters are required to switch to all-digital signals.
Cantrell's set is an analog-only television, once a mainstay TV model but no longer produced for U.S. consumers as of March 1.
About one out of every 10 Americans relies on an analog set with rabbit ears to watch free over-the-air broadcasts. Those sets will go dark in 2009 without a converter box or a satellite or cable hookup.
While Cantrell now watches television with a cable box, he's peeved that his TV wasn't made to take advantage of crystal-clear digital broadcasts. "I found out about it a month ago," the Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., resident said. "I was surprised."
To keep other consumers from being caught off guard, federal regulators recently told retailers they had until May 25 to label analog TVs with a "consumer alert" to inform shoppers about the need for special equipment beginning Feb. 17, 2009, when the all-digital rule takes effect.
The Federal Communications Commission, which issued the mandate, said the move was necessary because voluntary efforts by stores and television makers were not working.
"Each of these sets is a ticking time bomb for 2009, requiring consumers to go to significant trouble and expense if they want to continue receiving over-the-air television," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement.
For more than 50 years, analog has been the standard TV-broadcast technology, using magnetic waves to transmit and display pictures and sound. Its digital replacement offers clearer, movie-quality viewing by transmitting TV images and sounds via bits of data.
Last year, almost 11 million analog televisions were sold in the United States and an additional 2.5 million are expected to be sold this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group representing retailers and manufacturers.
It is estimated, however, that only about 11 percent of television viewers rely on over-the-air broadcasts. The rest use cable, satellite or a telecom video-service provider.
"The vast majority of Americans don't watch their TV over the air," said Jason Oxman, a spokesman for the consumer-electronics trade group.
Since early 2006 — when Congress passed a law requiring the digital switch — the trade group has been encouraging its members to tell consumers about the transition.
Oxman said the group's members, which include big-name retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City, will comply with the recent FCC label requirement. "We are pleased to help the FCC and make sure this information is made available to consumers," he said.
Circuit City, Best Buy and Wal-Mart said they are already in the process of labeling their analog TVs.
Despite the efforts, some television owners are flummoxed. A recent poll by the Association of Public Television Stations found that 61 percent of Americans had "no idea" about the switch to digital broadcasting.
"They are so confused it is ridiculous," said Tom Diamond, a service manager for Crystal TV, a television-repair business based in Winter Park, Fla.
Diamond said owners of standard televisions have been asking him whether their sets will soon be useless. "I tell them they don't have to go out and buy a new TV because everything is going digital," he said.
Owners of analog televisions can buy a converter box that can pick up digital signals. Those boxes, which are expected to cost from $50 to $70, will go on sale next year.
The U.S. Commerce Department has budgeted millions of dollars to help consumers purchase the converter boxes, offering $40 coupons — limited to two per household — that can go toward the purchase of a box.
But for analog-set owners who would like to buy a new digital-TV set, the prospects are a lot more expensive.
"We don't have unlimited amounts of funds," Cantrell, the Indian Harbour Beach retiree, said. "I can't go back and put out that kind of money for a new TV."
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