About 21 million will qualify for DTV converter coupons

The U.S. Commerce Department last week released a proposal for the government-subsidized program to assist on-air viewers transition to digital television transmissions. An estimated 21 million U.S. households, the proposal suggested, will be eligible to get coupons to aid in the purchase of converter boxes.

The figure is based on an estimate of the number of households who rely solely on OTA television broadcasts, Reuters reported. Coupons would not be offered to a majority of U.S. households — about 85 million — because they are presumed to already have an alternative to broadcast TV.

The deadline for television stations to shut down analog broadcasts occurs in February 2009. Last year, Congress passed a law that would provide an initial $990 million, and as much as $1.5 billion, to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes that would allow analog sets to receive digital signals.

The government is seeking public comment on the proposal and other ideas such as whether to limit the coupons to low-income households, such as those families living below the poverty level.

Broadcasters have claimed there are 73 million television sets in American homes that are not hooked up to cable or satellite. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that about 44 million rely on over-the-air broadcasts.

The new law permits eligible homes to receive up to two coupons, each worth $40. Consumers who are eligible for the discounts would have to apply for the coupons between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, and would be required to certify they qualify for the program, according to the proposal.

The NAB said it expected the government to focus on homes that rely on over-the-air broadcasts. “However, we would hope that no broadcast-only TV sets are forced to go dark during this transition,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.