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Civil Rights Group Wants Improved DTV Awareness

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights this week called on Congress to improve its efforts to educate consumers on the DTV transition, and recommended steps “to ensure that millions aren’t cut out of modern 21st century communications” when full power analog broadcasts cease next February.

The advocacy group is concerned that low-income consumers, minorities, the disabled, and senior citizens are not being adequately informed about the consequences of the DTV transition and that while it “applauds” current outreach education efforts, it said “much more work” needs to be done. The group characterized free over the air television as a “lifeline” to its constituencies, noting that they own a disproportionate share of older analog sets.

Among its concerns, LCCR cited the lack of federal leadership and a “comprehensive transition plan;” low viewer awareness and confusion over the transition and the DTV converter box program; what it termed “excessive and unanticipated” costs to consumers to make the transition; problems in acquiring coupons and converter boxes at retail; and the lack of a “rapid response” to problems after the February 2009 full power analog shutoff date. The group also noted that low income consumers, senior citizens and minorities are more likely to depend on low power television (which is not covered under next February’s analog shutoff), which increases confusion and the need for converter boxes with analog pass through.

The group recommends increasing funding for consumer education and outreach, which could include home visitations; eliminate the expiration date for converter coupons; improve coupon distribution, including changing the mailing envelopes for consumers with visual challenges; make more converter boxes with analog pass through eligible for coupons; improve retailer education; and publicize which converter boxes offer video description and require manufacturers to include automatic software updates that could impact closed captioning, video description, etc.

It also urged the federal government to form “Rapid Response Teams” to help the most vulnerable populations deal with the transition. Congressional offices and DTV assistance hotlines within the National Telecommunications Information Administration (the government agency in charge of managing the converter coupon program) and the FCC should be fully manned next February to deal with constituents’ “urgent, confused and potentially angry” questions about the transition, LCCR recommended.

“We need to reach deep into communities who rely on over the air broadcasting to find out if they are prepared for the transition and we need to make sure all Americans get the message about the DTV transition from messengers they trust in a language they can understand,” said Mark Lloyd, LCCR vide president for strategic initiatives. “Then we need to follow up to make sure they get the assistance they need to continue to have access to important news and emergency broadcasts.”

According to a report from the Government Accounting Office in May, more than 21 million U.S. households rely exclusively on over the air television. As of early July, more than 10 million households have applied for the DTV converter coupons and 4.8 million coupons have been redeemed, according to NAB.

The LCCR is the latest group to sound the alarm on how the DTV transition will affect minorities and senior citizens. AARP has also been a strong advocate for increased consumer awareness, as well. “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,” Debra Berlyn, federal affairs consultant with the AARP told TV Technology in February.

Also this week, the NAB released the results of a telephone survey that indicated that 85 percent of African American households were aware of the DTV transition. According to a Knowledge Networks/SRI Home Technology Monitor survey, 27.5 percent of over the air households in the United States are African American.

The 39-page report can be downloaded here.