Getting Asians Ready


Many Asian immigrants with limited incomes and a narrow grasp of English run an especially high risk of being left in the dark after next year’s switch from analog to digital television.

According to a poll commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters, 23% of Asian Americans are unaware that analog TV broadcasts will cease on Feb. 17, 2009. That’s more than African Americans (15%), Hispanics (12%) and non-Hispanic Whites (8%), according to the survey conducted by SmithGeiger this spring.

While figures from Nielsen Media Research (based on June and July interviews) are not quite so dramatic, data still showed that 13% of Asian-American-owned television sets are unequipped for the impending conversion.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that of 13.1 million Asian-Americans, 2.7 million live in “linguistically isolated households” and 1.16 million are under the poverty line — both factors that reduce the likelihood of being ready by the digital deadline.

To help remedy the situation, some nonprofit organizations are helping Asians tackle the DTV transition.

Anni Chung is CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, a social-services organization based in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Most of the time, Chung tends to the physical well-being of elderly Asians with modest incomes. She counts more than 700 digitally displaced Asian-Americans among her clientele.

Why is she concerned about this population’s media consumption? “TV is a lifeline,” she said.

Simply informing Asian immigrants who don’t speak English about DTV is a major undertaking, said Chung. And that’s without the complication of staff members filling out paperwork for elderly Asian immigrants with limited English comprehension.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has rejected many of the converter-box coupon requests submitted by Chung and her staff. That’s because many applicants live in single-room-occupancy buildings, and the agency doesn’t count each individual unit as a household. Nursing homes have faced a similar problem.

When the coupons are returned, the attached list of stores where they can be redeemed is in English. Many of the approved retailers are in areas far from Chinatown and do not have Chinese-speaking staff. If they manage to cross all those hurdles, Chung’s clients must still install the set-tops. And that’s been a major obstacle.

For us, the DTV transition is really a big deal,” said Michael Sherman, general manager of KTSF in San Francisco. A survey the Asian-language broadcaster commissioned in 2006 found that 28% of Chinese-speaking Bay Area households relied on over-the-air television signals.

Sherman is working hard to inform his overwhelmingly immigrant audience of the impending transition. He is airing public-service announcements in Chinese and Korean, and he’s working with local community organizations and federal agencies.

“We’ve had great help from the FCC and the Commerce Department,” said Sherman.

FCC consumer and government-affairs bureau chief Catherine Seidel took part with Sherman in a May town hall meeting designed to raise awareness of DTV among Asian-American community leaders. During an interview, Seidel rattled off a list of additional Asian American events attended by FCC representatives, including the Hmong National Development Conference in Denver, the Japanese American Citizens League meeting in Salt Lake City and the Organization of Chinese Americans meeting in Washington, D.C.

“[There is] a ton of work we have already done and a ton of work in the pipeline,” she said.

But is it enough?

Nielsen’s summer figure of 13% of Asian American-owned television sets being “completely unready” for DTV is largely unchanged from when a similar poll was conducted in the spring.

“We still are missing some of the consumers,” said Asian American Justice Center director of communications Leonie Campbell-Williams. The Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights organization has distributed 16,000 flyers in five languages at community events, thanks in part to a $60,000 grant from Comcast.

Campbell-Williams said Congress allocated $5 million for DTV transition-related consumer-marketing efforts. But that amount is “just a drop in the bucket,” she complained. “They need to come up with a bigger pot of money.”

“There are always challenges with non-English speakers,” acknowledged Shermaze Ingram, director of media relations, digital transition for the NAB.

She points to the digital television primer available in 59 languages at the NAB consumer Web site, which touts the “easy steps” consumers need to undertake. But Asian immigrants with limited English will find little that is easy about moving from analog to digital television.

“What seems simple is not simple at all,” said Chung of Self-Help for the Elderly. “As a matter of fact, it is very complex.”