For people who rely on "rabbit ears" or antennas to watch their favorite TV programs, time is running out-particularly in communities of color and for people living on fixed incomes as they are appearing to be the least prepared when the country converts next month from analog to digital-only broadcasting.
But the Feb.17 conversion, touted on one hand as the nation's biggest changeover since the introduction of decimal currency, has been criticized as a public sham.
A current Black Agenda Report (BAR) claims not only did the public not have a say in the matter, but also the conversion is but a mere opportunity for big media corporations to engage in a monopoly.
BAR also says that with a value of $80 billion, the 5,000 new channels that accompany the conversion will become the "quasi property" of the same corporations that already hold the licenses for all of American TV.
"Corporate media and their accomplices at the Federal Communications Commission may have pulled off the biggest public rip off since Congress conspired to grant millions of acres to the railroad barons," the report states.
Nonetheless, the switch is slated to spawn significant improvements in TV viewing that include better picture quality and sound while making more space available on the airways for public safety communications.
At the same time, the change could signal a setback for millions of individuals and families who–unable to afford cable television–have become accustomed to their rooftop antennas.
Those who fail to convert in time will not be able to get a picture on their TVs and may have to purchase a converter box or an updated set.
As a result, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) believes the transition, in which all TV stations in the country have been federally mandated to discontinue use of their analog systems, will bring about an even wider divide between the "haves" and "have nots."
Especially, observers note, when it was largely the votes of the latter that helped President-elect Barack Obama get to the White House. They contend that those among them without digital service will probably not keep track of his progress.
A study conducted this past fall by the Nielson Company showed that 12.5 percent of African American households and 13 percent of Hispanic households that were using analog TVs were not ready for the digital conversion.
The study also found that households with annual incomes of $25,000 or less were five times more likely to be unprepared for the conversion than households earning more than $75,000.
Further, if the required digital TV programming would go into effect today, Nielson noted that some 12.6 million households would have at least one TV that would no longer work.
Additionally, a consumer survey released after the Nielsen report stated that millions of people remained confused about how to prepare for the transition. According to the Web site TgDaily.com, to address their concerns and make the issue clear, many TV stations are launching preview tests that will occur during normal news and prime time programming.
During the test, if the TV goes to snow or shows no signal, a converter box will be needed.
LCCR says that to that end, it's also crucial for public officials as well as corporate and community officials to join forces and inform people with analog sets how and where they can obtain converter boxes.
Depending on the television, converter boxes cost between $40 and $70.
The government however, is sponsoring a conversion assistance program in which households can receive two $40 coupons for the purchase of converter boxes. For more information, visit www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009.