Lack of coupons means full price for TV converter boxesby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
A lot of Minnesotans are going to need converter boxes to get their TVs to work when all broadcasts go digital next month. The federal government had planned to give consumers $40 coupons good toward the purchase of the boxes, but the program funding the coupons has run out of money. That means folks who haven't received coupons yet may have to pay full price for converter boxes.
St. Paul, Minn. — Josiah Herron is among the Minnesotans so far that have redeemed nearly a half-million coupons that got them $40 off a digital TV converter box.
The boxes transform digital broadcast TV transmissions into signals that can be viewed on old analog TVs. Without the boxes, those TVs will get no reception. Not unless they're hooked up to a cable or satellite TV service.
Herron figures the box is worth a try. Like about one-fifth of Minnesotans, he doesn't have cable or satellite TV service. And he'd like to hang on to his old TV.
"They say it works good," Herron said. "My cousin bought one for his TV. He says the picture is clear, like HD. It works fine for his TV. So, I'm going to try it out myself."
Herron's net cost with his coupon was $9. But Minnesotans who don't have coupons in hand may have to pay full price for the converter boxes. They generally sell for $50 to $80, though some people are finding them for $40.
Consumers who don't already have coupons are being placed on a waiting list and may not receive their vouchers before the switchover, if ever.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the coupon program, created the waiting list Sunday after hitting a $1.3 billion funding limit set by Congress.
Those put on the waiting list may receive coupons as previously issued coupons expire unused. Or, they might get coupons if Congress adds money to the converter box program.
But Todd Sedmak, spokesman for the converter box program, said people shouldn't wait for a coupon before taking action to assure they'll be able to watch TV when all broadcasts go digital on February 18.
"If you're someone who relies on a TV that gets its reception over the air with an antenna and haven't made the switch yet, you really need to consider your other options," Sedmak said. "Other than waiting for your coupon to come."
Sedmak notes there are four options.
"You can buy a converter box without a coupon," Sedmak said. "You can subscribe to cable or satellite service, or you can buy a new digital TV."
So far, Minnesotans have requested over a million converter box coupons, and about half have been redeemed. The rest are either still good or expired. Nationally about a one-third of the coupons have been expiring, going unused.
Jim du Bois of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association said it's hard to tell how well prepared Minnesotans are for the digital TV conversion. But he believes most households are ready.
"The question that no one really can answer at this point is how many of those folks have gotten converter boxes, purchased a digital TV or subscribed to cable or satellite," du Bois said. "I would have to believe, with the tremendous amount of marketing that has gone on and consumer education, a lot of those folks have made the move to make sure they're ready for digital TV."
Retailers say converter boxes are selling briskly.
Target spokesman Joshua Thomas said most buyers are using the government's $40-off coupons.
"Sales continue to outpace our expectations," Thomas said. "And we're seeing high redemption of those boxes being made with coupons issued by the government."
Consumers Union, which has tested 35 boxes, said there's a great variation in what the boxes offer consumers for their money. Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, said his organization found the more expensive boxes are often poor values.
"Price is not necessarily an indicator of quality," Kelsey said. "The more expensive boxes don't necessarily give you the best picture, the best tuner sensitivity or consumer options, like universal remote control or program guide."
Although the converter box coupon program is open to all, it was created to help consumers who rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast TV signals, including many in minority and low-income communities. The elderly are also considered an at at-risk group when it comes to the digital TV transition.
Kelsey said the federal government must remember that in these tough economic times, many people really need those $40 coupons to buy converter boxes.
"Congress needs to consider, in a downturn economy, how many folks are not going to be going out and buying brand new television sets."
Indeed, a lot of people are going to hang on to their old TVs, whether it's because they don't have the money for new ones, they're simply frugal or they see no need for a new sets.
Josiah Herron is in that camp. He expects his converter box will give him all the TV he wants right now.
"It's recycling, you know," Herron said.
The NTIA waiting list already has requests for more than 100,000 coupons. But the agency expects several million coupons will expire in coming weeks, and that'll likely give many folks who dallied in asking for coupons a chance to still get one or two. There's a limit of two per household.
- Morning Edition, 01/07/2009, 6:50 a.m.