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T-Minus 1: Commerce Secretary Addresses DTV Transition

WASHINGTON: U.S. Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke dropped in on yesterday’s White House Press Briefing to mention tomorrow’s DTV transition to the heavyweight hacks in the presidential press pool. An edited transcript of his Q&A with reporters follows:

SECRETARY LOCKE: Here is what the American people need to know about the June 12th switchover… You can subscribe to cable or satellite; you can purchase a newer television set that has these automatic digital tuners built in; or you can purchase a converter box.

The Recovery Act provided Commerce with money to help consumers having trouble affording a digital converter box. Millions of households have applied for and received the $40 coupons to cover the cost of these converter boxes. And the converter boxes start at $40 and we mail out two coupons per household, requesting household. So that basically means that with the coupons you get a free converter box.

While coupons are still available for eligible households, it will take some nine days for us to process and send out, first-class mail, these coupons, and so they will not arrive in time for this Friday’s conversion. We will have these coupons available until the end of July--July 31st--or as long as supplies last. The coupons are good for 90 days each.

If you already have a coupon, please make sure to purchase the converter box immediately at a partnering retail store like Target, RadioShack, Circuit City, or Wal-Mart. Take it home, hook it up right away--in fact, you can use these converter boxes now and receive the digital signal now.

You can get more information about the transition… by calling us toll-free at 1-888-DTV-2009. And for those Americans who need extra assistance, the FCC is offering free in-home installation for consumers in most cities. They can call the FCC, or if you have a technical question about how to install the converter boxes, call the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC. They have a robust call center that’s in operation to help Americans with the transition and the call center will be fully staffed for many days even after June 12.

For those families already prepared for the transition, make sure to help other friends and families. If they have leftover coupons, unused coupons that are still valid, feel free to share them with other individuals so they can rush out and get a converter box.

We will continue to reach out to the most vulnerable communities to ensure as many Americans as possible are ready for this switch to digital television. We want to make sure that families are able to not only receive their favorite programming, but more importantly, to receive news broadcasts of emergency alerts, impending storms, and any other emergency situation within their community. It’s very important that communities and people throughout our nation have the information they need to respond in times of emergencies.

And I want to thank you now, and I’d be happy to take any questions you have about the transition or the progress that we’ve made in decreasing the number of families who are unprepared.

Q: Can you tell us what kind of planning you have in place for the families who, come Friday or Saturday, despite your efforts, will not have gone through this and will lose their service?

SECRETARY LOCKE: Well, the television stations, even though the screens will go blue, will have telephone numbers on the bottom--either our telephone number, our toll free number, 1-888-DTV-2009, where they can continue to request the coupons; and also telephone numbers for the FCC.

Q: This will come up--the TV turns on, this will come on their screen?

SECRETARY LOCKE: It’s a rolling conversion starting midnight Thursday night, 12:01 a.m. Friday. Some stations will start converting to digital throughout the day. But by the end of the day all television stations must be exclusively on digital.

Q: And do you have a sense of how many people will be affected, who will not have converted by now?

SECRETARY LOCKE: Well, as of this last Sunday we had some 2.7 million households--excuse me, 2.8 million households, roughly 2.5 percent of all households in America with television sets that are not prepared. And when we say “not prepared,” we mean who don’t have at least one television set that can continue to receive news.

I mean, in our own household we have several television sets that are on cable, that are hooked up to cable, but I also have an old television set in the garage that’s not hooked up and will not be able to receive the broadcast after June 12. But we are prepared because our other television sets have cable and therefore not affected. So we’re talking about families that are completely unprepared, that have neither the converter box, don’t have a new television set, or don’t have cable or satellite. We call them “totally unprepared.” And on June 12th, if they don’t do something between now and then, they will get nothing but a blue screen.

Q: Are there particular pockets of the country where families are unprepared, or are they scattered throughout the country?

SECRETARY LOCKE: It’s actually--we’re finding that it’s primarily on the West Coast and the Southwest that are more unprepared than the rest of the country. Los Angeles, while having a small percentage of families unprepared, a small percentage of a huge market is about a quarter-million households that are unprepared.

We’re also finding that it’s--ethnic groups are more unprepared than the general population: African American, Hispanic, almost twice the national average; Asian Americans just slightly above the national average. Surprisingly enough, seniors are prepared. And it’s the younger generation, households of under 30 that are also more unprepared than the national average. Maybe it’s because they rely on new forms of media for news and programming and don’t care about television anymore. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: None of the newspaper guys are--(laughter.)

SECRETARY LOCKE: So you new media people, you must be loving it.

Q: Don’t watch the news tonight.

SECRETARY LOCKE: The Recovery Act provided $650 million. And we have more than enough coupons to handle all the unprepared households if they were to ask for coupons. We also have several million coupons that have not yet been redeemed, but we’ve also provided funds to the FCC for outreach call center support.

But we’ve really been pleased with the amazing interest and activity in just the last week. The last few days we’ve been receiving requests from over 100,000 households asking for coupons. So we’re seeing a dramatic drop in the number of unprepared families.

When the President took office, there were some--almost 6 million households, 6.8--excuse me, almost 7 million households not prepared--6.8 million, to be exact. That’s roughly 5.9 percent of the households not prepared. And that’s now down to 2.5 percent, or 2.8 million households.

Q: You had said that this--there was an ethnicity--Hispanics and African Americans. Is this a language--so is this a language issue that--has there been enough done on the language front?

SECRETARY LOCKE: Well, it could be a language issue. Ethnic minorities, for whatever reason--it may be due to language--are not as prepared as others. But we’ve been reaching out using Hispanic--Telemundo, Univision; held a press conference with Mayor Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, Mayor Kevin Johnson in Sacramento.

And since those press conferences and those special events --I’ve conducted more than 50 events--interviews, on-air radio shows, television shows, working with the print media--the activity in request for coupons have really spiked. But we’re using a lot of free media as well as paid media. And I want to thank all the partners in the television industry and broadcasting industry for getting the word out.

Q: Mr. Secretary, isn’t it possible that some just decided not to do it, and isn’t that okay?

SECRETARY LOCKE: That’s true. As long as--we believe that there’s almost universal understanding of it. We know that there will be some people who don’t want to make the conversion or maybe they’ll wait until they get a new television set, or maybe will just--don’t want it for now. And we do know that there are a lot of people who procrastinate, whether it’s paying taxes or, when we were in college, studying for exams--or not--(laughter)--and getting by. But, again, just in the last few days more than 100,000 households have been calling asking for coupons.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you explain how you’re getting these statistics? Like how do we know that 2.5 percent of TV households don’t have it?

SECRETARY LOCKE: It’s from Nielsen data and they collect the data almost every week or every other week. And the data that I’ve given you is the data as of Sunday, this past Sunday.

Q: What about people who are prepared, hook up the converter box, but still don’t get a picture? How many of those might there be?

SECRETARY LOCKE: It could be a problem of reception because for digital it’s all or nothing. Using the old analog signals, if you had a building that was blocking the airwaves you might get ghosting, and if you were pretty far from the transmission tower the signal might be weak and you might not have a very good picture, it might be very grainy. With digital it’s all or nothing. So there may be some problems and households may need to buy a little antenna that they could attach to a converter box as well.

But if people are having some questions they should call the FCC, and its toll free at 1-888-CALL-FCC. And if people are having some problems with installation understanding, the FCC has free in-home consultation and installation service.