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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Best Buy on 2100 South in Salt Lake City is currently stocking digital converter boxes in preparation for the changeover to digital TV coming up in February 2009.

The move to digital broadcasting might seem ominous for people who rely on over-the-air broadcasts for viewing their TV shows — and if those viewers don't take certain steps, they'll be out of luck for TV watching come February.

Exactly how many people will be affected is a matter of debate. Some government and industry analysts suspect digital converter boxes will be snatched up before the change from analog to digital broadcasting. Other experts believe viewers will switch their old analog sets for Christmas.

But if the analog-to-digital change occurred right now, Salt Lake City would be affected more than most of the nation. According to a recent report, only Milwaukee would be worse off.

For Salt Lake, that second-worst ranking represents a slip down a notch from February, when the city was third-worst.

Data from the Nielsen Co. shows that 18 percent of households in the Salt Lake City market area — which actually is all of Utah and several counties in Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming — are "completely unready" for the analog-to-digital conversion that will happen Feb. 17. The figure represents households with TV sets that all get signals over the air, meaning without cable or satellite service, a digital converter box or an internal digital tuner.

Of the 56 markets in the report, only Milwaukee's 18.3 percent of "completely unready" households fared worse than Salt Lake. Hartford and New Haven, Conn., represented the "most ready" market, with only 3.1 percent of households relying entirely on free over-the-air analog broadcast signals. The national figure was 9.4 percent.

"There probably are some people who don't watch enough television to even care (about the switch)," said Anne Elliot, vice president of communications for the Nielsen Co. "But come Feb. 18, they might change their mind."

As of May, the Utah area in the Nielsen study had about 23 percent of homes that rely solely on analog broadcast signals. Nearly 40 percent of households were wired for cable, and 38 percent got TV from another source, primarily satellite. Nationally, only about 12 percent of homes use over-the-air signals, while 61.8 percent use cable and 27 percent use primarily satellite.

Elliot was unsure about factors contributing to Utah's lack of digital preparedness. The Milwaukee native said her hometown was late to receive cable service, and her parents "had perfectly good reception" from over-the-air signals. "I know every local market has unique things about it that we can't possibly know," she said.

At-risk households have three options for retaining their TV viewing. They can buy a converter box that will plug into their analog TV. They can purchase a TV with a digital tuner. Or they can connect their analog TV to cable, satellite or other pay service.

Many experts believe households will upgrade their TV equipment, by buying a digital-ready TV, before February.

"There are people who are aware but may not necessarily realize that they are at-risk, or they may be and they may be thinking, 'You know what? At Christmas, I'll buy one of those new sets,' or they'll do it for their anniversary," Elliot said. "They may not view this as something they need to jump on today, but they're storing in the back of their mind that by February, they have to do something."

A few might opt to ignore the transition and do without TV altogether. "Frankly, I find it hard to imagine that there are going to be a lot of people who will take that approach," she said. "But it could be a matter that people aren't focusing on it or really don't understand it. I think a lot of people don't understand it."

Taking action

Many Utahns are in the process of obtaining those set-top converter boxes that will allow their analog TVs to receive the digital signals.

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration is handling a program offering each household two free coupons, worth $40 each toward the purchase of a converter box.

More than 79,000 households in the Utah area have requested a total of 150,000 coupons, and nearly 43,000 coupons have been redeemed at stores, according to Todd Sedmak, spokesman for the Commerce Department's coupon program.

The Utah area requests represent just under 10 percent of the total households in the region. Milwaukee; Boise; and Portland, Ore., had nearly 13 percent of households making requests. Tulsa, Okla., had nearly 10 percent; and Denver and Phoenix had about 7 percent.

Nationally, nearly 17 million coupons have been requested, of which 16 million have been mailed, and more than 3.5 million have been redeemed.

But Sedmak suspects many people have received coupons only to realize later that they don't need them because they already have cable service.

Details about the digital conversion and the government coupon program are available at www.dtv2009.gov.

"Americans are a funny lot," he said. "They see CNN and think, 'Hey, I can get 40 bucks,' and they apply, and sometimes they don't think through what's going on."

Even so, people still can put those coupons to good use, he said. "If you get coupons and you don't need them, there's nothing wrong with sharing them with family or friends."

The coupons expire in 90 days — the date is printed on each card. People shopping at a particular store may search other stores in that chain, other retail chains or phone and online retailers.

"There are a lot of choices for people to redeem coupons," Sedmak said.

Spotty availability

But at a congressional hearing this month in Washington, lawmakers said some coupons are expiring before being redeemed because of converter-box shortages at some stores.

Several lawmakers said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing that consumers should be given more time to buy the boxes, even after the coupons expire.

"If you can't get a box within the 90 days, what good is this?" said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who held up one of the coupons, which resemble plastic gift cards.

One retail chain without converter boxes in Utah is Shopko. Mike Elggren, electronics specialist at the Shopko in Layton, said his store has yet to receive any of the boxes but could have some this summer. He said customers are telling him that shortages have occurred at other chains, as well.

Best Buy, meanwhile, has 30 to 60 converter boxes per store, and in some cases, more than 100 at each store in Utah, Idaho and Montana, according to company spokesman Brian Lucas. The exception is one Idaho store, which had none last Tuesday. Best Buy's Murray store had the lowest count in Utah, with 16. The South Salt Lake store had 140.

"Our demand planners have done a very good job of making sure stores have not been running out, and if they have run out, they've been replenished very quickly," he said.

Best Buy is moving from a box that it now offers to two new models, and some stores might have a "lower than optimal" supply as the switch is made, he said.

Best Buy has established a hotline at 1-877-BBY-DTV9 to let customers get answers to their digital-conversion questions, redeem the government coupons and order converter boxes.

Elggren said some Shopko customers apparently are confused about the need for the boxes, especially if they subscribe to cable. "Sometimes we end up explaining to them if they need it on their TV," he said. "A lot of people have come in and have bought TVs during the past two years," and many are equipped to handle the transition, he said.

A National Association of Broadcasters telephone survey released in mid-June showed that 90 percent of respondents were aware of the pending digital format switch. That was up from 83 percent in a similar survey in January.

"That's progress from where were six months ago. It's great progress," said Lucas at the Commerce Department.

The next step, he said, is to raise awareness of the solutions, "to get the three options people have out into the consciousness."


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com