NAB Frets Over Digital Boxes

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Washington— The largest TV-station trade group is concerned that millions of digital converter boxes won’t be widely available on Jan. 1, 2008, for consumers who want to keep using analog TV sets many years into the future.

National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr made his concerns known in a letter last Monday to the leaders of the Consumer Electronics Association and the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition.

“It is critical to our collective success that manufacturers build, and retailers have available for sale, digital-to-analog converter boxes by [Jan. 1, 2008]” Rehr said. “As I am sure you are aware, if boxes are not produced and on store shelves on Jan. 1, 2008, significant consumer confusion will result and could negatively impact the overall success of the transition.”

That Rehr had to convey his message in a letter to CEA president Gary Shapiro — which the NAB also gave to the media the same day — was somewhat ironic in that the NAB and the CEA are supposed to be leading partners, along with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, in a coalition designed to prepare the public for the government-mandated cutoff of analog TV on Feb. 17, 2009.

After Feb. 17, 2009, tens of millions of analog-TV sets not connected to cable or satellite TV will need converter boxes that can translate digital broadcast signals to analog.

President Bush signed the analog cutoff into law in early 2006 in an effort to free up broadcast TV spectrum for public-safety organizations and for auction to wireless-broadband providers.

Although Rehr’s two-page letter didn’t explain the importance of Jan. 1, 2008, he was probably referring to the $1.5 billion federal program that allows every U.S. household to apply for two $40 coupons to defray converter-box costs. Consumers can’t begin to apply for coupons until Jan. 1, 2008.

“When the coupons become available, we want to make sure the converter boxes are also available,” NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said. “Also, NAB plans to have our educational campaign up and running in a big way in 2008 [with public-service announcements and the like]. The last thing we want is to be airing PSAs encouraging people to take advantage of the converter-box program, only to find there are no converter boxes in stores.”

A day later, Shapiro responding to Rehr by saying that “at least three” CEA TV-equipment makers would produce converter boxes that meet federal eligibility guidelines.

Shapiro opined that any American who wants to purchase a coupon-eligible box will have a wide variety of convenient retail sources from which to choose.”

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