AARP’s Concerns

“Okay, so you’ve ignored every innovation in TV—cable, satellite, TiVo, the works. Well, now change is coming to the airwaves themselves, and this time you can’t avoid it.”

This advisory, above, issued for its nearly 40 million dues-paying members in AARP Magazine’s winter 2008 issue, comes amid lingering concerns by the non-profit group that some elderly Americans suddenly could be left staring at blank TV screens a year from now, on the morning of Feb. 18, 2009.

Despite funding to subsidize analog-to-digital converter boxes, and an array of educational campaigns, AARP (which is now its official name) thinks some legislative loopholes could leave the most vulnerable seniors without their TV services such as local news and weather—a possibility perhaps made more dramatic by the fact that it could happen literally overnight.

(click thumbnail)Debra Berlyn, Federal Affairs Consultant, AARPThe organization believes some issues still need to be addressed for the older end of their membership rolls, according to AARP Federal Affairs Consultant Debra Berlyn. She spoke recently with TV Technology:

TV TECHNOLOGY:It seems there’s a lot going on right now as far as getting the word out on the final transition next February at the industry, government and retails levels. What still concerns the AARP at this stage?

BERLYN: Some of our concerns have been addressed because at least there’s a government-funded program to assist with the change-over. But does it go far enough? No, not really. We’re pleased to see that the financial costs, for the most part, have been remedied by providing this $40 coupon to help purchase the converter boxes.

Yet I’m curious to see how the market goes as far as what the boxes will cost, because Congress did not require the boxes be set at any particular price, so we’re somewhat at the mercy of the marketplace. We did hear that at least one box could be in the $40 range, so that would be [good].

TV TECHNOLOGY:Since the boxes are only needed for those analog sets without cable, satellite or fiber connections, does AARP have a ballpark figure on how many of your members may actually be affected?

BERLYN: We know about 40 percent of analog-only households include individuals who are 50-years old and older, which is the age range for AARP members. Forty percent is a rather significant number.

TV TECHNOLOGY:How significant it is would depend on the overall number of analog-only homes, yes?

BERLYN: Yes it does, and the number of analog-only homes depends, of course, on who you ask. The Washington Post says about 20 million homes are affected. The [CEA] says a lot less, but we’re using the higher Post numbers in our dealings. And, of course, we do have homes with both, [antenna-reliant] and connected TV sets.

TV TECHNOLOGY:Why are older Americans affected by this at all? Is it income, maybe an adversity to new technology, or something else?

BERLYN: First of all, there are a number of older people who could be more vulnerable than most because they are homebound and find it difficult to get out of the house to buy a converter box. And we have to remember this: Television provides an essential information tool in the home for older Americans, with important safety and weather information, and local news, and we simply can’t risk allowing any households to lose this vital access.

TV TECHNOLOGY:So this sounds like it would pertain to those older viewers who cannot rely on anyone else for assistance?

BERLYN: It would, indeed, and there are a lot of people in that category. We’re talking basically about that [segment] who would find all this to be the greatest challenge. Whether they need a converter box and a coupon, and then what they need to do with the coupon, and then where do they go from there?

TV TECHNOLOGY:What about those seniors living in group homes and nursing facilities?

BERLYN: That’s a real problem. There’s a bit of a loophole or a forgotten element in all this because the government is using the definition of a household as they did for the U.S. Census that requires an individual post office box or a separate address per household, and you don’t have that in a group-home situation. So AARP is very concerned that those older Americans can get left out on this. They’ll need to rely on someone else to help.

TV TECHNOLOGY:Assuming for a moment that whatever is done beforehand, chances are there still will be some problems once the transition takes hold. What does AARP do in the year ahead, preceding the change, to lessen those potential problems?

BERLYN: Well, we need to be diligent about seeing exactly what is happening in the months ahead, and do some serious research about how the converter boxes are going out, how they’re being sold, where they’re being used, looking for areas maybe where boxes are unavailable for some reason. There’s just a tremendous amount of oversight to implement in the coming months. And then we can start to address it if there are some other problems. We know, for example, we will need to find a way to literally help some older people who need assistance to install these boxes in their homes or rooms, and to get things working correctly.

We know the industry has devoted a tremendous a-mount of money to advertising and to getting the word out on the transition, and we have that 1 billion dollars allocated for the coupon program. But out of all this, the federal government has only allocated 5 million dollars for so-called ‘consumer education and outreach.’ So that leaves a huge reliance on non-profit organizations and other parties to do their part—and while some groups can manage that, there are probably those [non-profits] out there who can probably use some additional resources to help get the word out.