Finding an affordable converter box before the big switch

by Joshua Breitbart, Gotham Gazette

RTM note: Reclaim the Media is working with the Seattle Mayor's office and the City Council to ask local retailers to carry DTV converted boxes in the $40-$45 range.

Local retailers are playing a key role in the great television switchover. They are on the front lines of the education effort, using in-store displays and public presentations. The government has certified 2,300 retailers with 34,000 locations to sell the analog-to-digital converter boxes that you will need to keep watching TV after the transition - if you have an older television set and use rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna. Only certified retailers can accept the government-issued $40 coupon towards the purchase of a converter box.

At the neighborhood level, though, some retailers may be more of a hindrance than a help. The coupons expire after 90 days, putting pressure on recipients to get to the stores and make their purchase. But many stores are out of stock or offer limited choice, few - if any - carry the most economical or best models, and a number give out incorrect information. Some are even demanding unnecessary information from consumers, throwing further obstacles onto an already-rocky transition process.

Local Retailers

With 87 stores just within the five boroughs, RadioShack has been one of the most active retailers guiding consumers through the transition. They offer an online tutorial on how to hook up a converter and they have partnered with the American Library Association to offer demonstrations around the country. In September, they provided a hands-on demonstration for Harlem seniors in the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building.

The company's retail outlets are a different story, however. RadioShack stores in many New York neighborhoods only offer the Digital Stream DTX9950 for $59.99, on sale for $54.99. Consumer Reports rated the DTX9950 toward the bottom of the 31 boxes its staff reviewed. Last fall, RadioShack was stocking the higher-rated Zenith DTT901 as well, also for $59.99, but the stores appear to have sold out of it.

RadioShack would not comment on its stocking and pricing decisions.

P.C. Richard & Son, another popular retailer with 19 outlets in New York City, carries the Zenith for $64.99, but it is out of stock until mid-February.

Consumer Reports found that price was not an indicator of quality with the DTV converter boxes, which range in price from $40 to $80. A $46 model had the best picture quality, and many $40 models had the same features as more expensive ones. Yet, major retailers like RadioShack and P.C. Richard have declined to stock any of the cheaper models - even though consumers were supposed to be able to get the boxes for free using their $40 coupons,

Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, understands why the inexpensive models are in short supply. "They have limited shelf space and they want to make money. That's fine, but when the federal government did this, it was never supposed to be about providing profits to the retailers," Kelsey says. "Everyone has made out in this deal except consumers."

No-Cost Box

To further complicate matters, many consumers who need converters have not been able to get the $40-off coupons. On Jan. 4, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees the program, hit the ceiling of what it could allocate for the coupons, forcing more than 1.5 million new applicants onto a waiting list.

Congress originally allocated $1.4 billion for the transition: $160 million to administer it, $5 million for public education and the rest for the coupons. Many people who request the coupons don't end up using them and the money goes back into the pot, but the administration has had to wait for old coupons to expire before issuing new ones --which may be after the Feb.17 switch. Congress is on its way to passing an extension of the transition deadline from Feb. 17 to June 12 and refueling the coupon program, but the measure does little more than give municipalities and community organizations a bit more time to prepare local viewers.

At a press conference on Jan. 8 (which I participated in on behalf of People's Production House), City Councilmember Gale Brewer called for a delay in the transition while the federal government corrects the problems with the coupon program.

Getting the coupon is only the first step. Some recipients have had trouble finding an affordable device. "We've had many constituents tell us that the additional $15 is a hardship for them," Brewer said, referring to the balance consumers have to pay after redeeming their $40 coupon on a $55 box. "For people on a fixed income, it's prohibitive."

Shoppers can find $40 converter boxes online, including from one Website that offers free shipping, but many people who have an old TV and a rabbit ears antenna don't have Internet access at home.

Residents in a number of cities across the country, including Oakland, Minneapolis and San Antonio, have grown frustrated at not being able to find a "no cost box" in local stores. In Seattle, the mayor and members of the City Council wrote a letter to retailers asking them to carry at least one model in the $40 to $45 range.

No such effort is underway in New York, but that may change as the city ramps up efforts to assist vulnerable residents make the transition. Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference on Jan. 26 to encourage the roughly 300,000 New York City households that receive free over-the-air television to make sure they're prepared. The city's 311 non-emergency helpline has updated information for callers who need assistance.
Name and Address Required?

RadioShack has thrown up additional barriers for consumers trying to redeem the government-issued coupons. Stores in New York City have been requiring that customer using the coupon provide the store with their name and address. Sales agents at many stores said in doing this they simply were complying with the federal government's rules, but a spokesperson for the technology administration said there was no such requirement.

"All you need to do is present the coupon," said Bart Forbes, an NTIA spokesperson. Coupons are issued to a household, not to individuals. They are transferrable, but the law limits each household to two. "We have strong controls in place that monitor and minimize waste, fraud and abuse," Forbes said, including sending out "secret shoppers" to inspect retailers in action.

Wendy Dominguez, a corporate media relations manager for RadioShack, denied the company required personal information to redeem a coupon. Yet agents at several stores in the city insisted over the phone and in person that the information was mandatory.

"Even if you talk to a manager, there's no way around it," said one RadioShack sales associate. The [computer] system is going to come up that way. You can't use the coupon without giving your information."

The company is using the information they gather for marketing, sending out cards that say, "Thanks for buying a Digital Converter Box at RadioShack" and promising "$10 off your next qualifying purchase of $40 or more."

According to Dominguez, the company originally required customer information to help the government track coupon redemptions, but the technology administration never sought such help. Dominguez says RadioShack changed its procedures months ago and stores that insist the information is mandatory are failing to heed a June 17, 2008, corporate memo that said it was no longer required.

RadioShack, though, still apparently prefers that customers provide their information. If customers do not, sales clerks must go through a four-step work-around to accept the coupon.

RadioShack's name and address requirement could act as a deterrent, especially to immigrants or seniors, who already face the greatest challenges with the transition. "Consumers don't need any more hoops to jump through. They should be able to redeem the coupons without having to give over their personal information or being unfairly marketed to," says Kelsey of Consumers Union.

Based on phone calls to multiple stores, P.C. Richard & Son does not require personal information to redeem the coupon.
A Chance To Do Better

Faced with a lack of consumer choices, organizations in San Antonio, Oakland, Minneapolis and Seattle, are asking retailers to stock at least brand of one converter box selling for $40, even if only for a single weekend.

"We have a right to communicate. We should not be exploiting our community, making a profit off of that right," says DeAnne Cuellar who, as project director for Texas Media Empowerment Project, has organized delegations to speak with the managers of a new Best Buy outlet in a working class, largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of San Antonio. "By not offering a no-cost conversion, we are putting that right at risk."

The Oakland organization, Media Alliance, is targeting RadioShack. They have found receptive store managers, but have not been able to convince district or regional managers who make the decisions about which products to stock.

The activists are coordinating their campaign through the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net). The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, which received $1.65 million from the federal government in November to assist the public with the transition, has joined with the Media Action Grassroots Network and other community-based organizations to open Digital TV Assistance Centers in seven metro areas. As of yet, there are no such centers in New York and none are planned.

The volunteers staffing the phone lines at these centers get an intense, on-the-ground look at the problems people face. The Main Street Project in Minneapolis took 600 calls on its first day. The San Antonio volunteers took in 200 requests for help by phone or text message in a single day. Some callers cannot afford a box or figure out how to hook it up. Others have been sold a new digital television or cable service they can't afford and don't actually need. (A converter box will keep your old TV working and, if anything, the digital transition is an opportunity to drop basic cable, since you can get better reception over the air for free.)

"We see statistics saying that 94 percent of the country is ready," says Cuellar. "The calls we are getting everyday tell us that our community is not ready. TV is some people's only window to the outside. They see that they might be cut off from that, and they're scared."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey