During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday examining the government-mandated transition to digital TV, lawmakers aired their views that too little was being done to get the message to Americans.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., fretted over the "high potential for a train wreck" as she and other lawmakers questioned National Telecommunications & Information Administration director John Kneuer and FCC Consumer Bureau chief Cathy Seidel.
"Far too few of these consumers know that the transition from current analog television technology to digital television, or DTV, is under way," said committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Kneuer defended the government's actions, telling the committee it's up to the broadcast industry to let people know what's going on.
"It's not only their own responsibility, it's in their own interest," Kneuer said.
According to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, 21 million households--about 19 percent of the nation--rely on an antenna rather than cable or satellite to receive television signals. The poor, elderly and minorities typically depend on the over-the-air signal more than the well-to-do.
"These consumers will be confused, frustrated and angry that this important information and entertainment source in their home is no longer operational, through no fault of their own," testified Nelda Barnett, a member of the board of the directors of the 39 million-member AARP, a lobby group for Americans aged 50 and older.
A poll released in January by the Association for Public Television Stations indicated 61 percent of respondents had "no idea" the digital transition was going to take place.
When completed, the digital TV transition will give people the ability to receive movie quality, high-definition pictures and CD-quality sound as well as the ability to receive several channels where they now receive one.
While that's generally considered laudable, it also will make obsolete most TVs that use an antenna to get a broadcast signal--unless viewers get a converter box.
Under an NTIA plan, Uncle Sam will make available to each household two coupons worth $40 each that can be used to buy two converter boxes. Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to pay for the coupon program.
Initially, $990 million will be used to pay for coupons and to cover administrative costs, capped at $110 million. An additional $510 million might be allocated, but those coupons are reserved for households that have only over-the-air television. The government earmarked $5 million for public education.
National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said television stations are pushing to get the word out.
"Our very business is at stake here," he said.
Stations will begin airing public service announcements worth "tens of millions of dollars" in December, he said.
"Broadcasters will do our dead-level best to educate Americans on this," Wharton promised.