Retailers need a better approach to DTV transition

by Omar Ahmed, New Mexico Independent

The June 12th date of the much discussed Digital Television (DTV) Transition looms nearer, but Nielsen Media reports that 3.8 million households are still not ready and 3.4 percent of all homes would no longer have any TV service at all if analog service disappeared today.

Though the federal government’s coupon program is back on track and people with expired coupons can now reapply, millions of people of color, poor and working class people, the elderly, and disabled communities remain unable to afford the costly converter boxes needed to maintain television access once broadcast signals are no longer available.

By now most people agree that the DTV Transition was poorly conceived. Still, the burden of the cost laid in the laps of the poorest consumers hasn’t really been sufficiently alleviated — even with the recent additional allocation of $600 million by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for education and coupons to subsidize the cost of converter boxes.

Why? Because enough retailers haven’t yet pulled up a chair to play a significant role in ensuring that there a no-cost converter box option exists that is fully covered by the $40 NTIA coupons.

The bad news is that converter boxes are priced between $50 and $200, and some retailers are more concerned with banking a profit than ensuring that the nation’s poorest aren’t threatened with the loss of basic television access simply because they can’t afford a converter box.

The good news is that there are some electronics retailers who understand that poverty should not prevent anyone from accessing basic news and information.

On April 17th local retailers here in New Mexico as well as in New York, Minneapolis, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Kentucky will participate in an unusual national campaign led by the community organizations of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) to offer a “no cost” cost converter box option to consumers presenting NTIAA coupons. These converter boxes aren’t free, but they will cost no more than the amount of the coupon, thus demonstrating a significant commitment from retailers to play their part in ensuring a socially responsible digital television transition.

Best Buy and Fred Meyers retailers have already stepped up to the plate and the organizations of MAG-Net are taking steps to encourage Radio Shack, Wal-mart, and Target stores also do the right thing.

Partnering with local community groups, these electronic retailers proudly display their pledge to a socially responsible DTV transition in their window, the marker that a “no cost” box is available on their shelves.

Even more unusual, Mosquito Production, a small local retailer located in Minneapolis, Minnesota has taken an additional, positive step.

Not only has this store taken the “no cost” pledge, but they’ve also created two Web sites — one which gives consumers an online vehicle to order a “no cost” converter box, and another to facilitate those with extra NTIA coupons to donate them to people in need.

Going beyond the call of duty, Mosquito Productions has even partnered with Main Street Project, a local grassroots community organization, to design and print a “no cost box” T-shirt!

Two-thirds of people in the U.S. base their electoral and other political decisions on what they read, watch, and listen to in the news. For communities of color, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor, losing television access during the DTV Transition won’t simply mean the loss of luxury entertainment, rather it would signify the loss of access to basic information, news, and cultural ties — and would represent a violation of the fundamental right to free speech.

Designing a socially responsible digital television transition that leaves no part of our community behind has proved a serious challenge for the FCC, Congress, and the NTIA, but with the right retail and community partnerships — and the right government priorities — no community here in New Mexico has to lose out.

Omar Ahmed is director of community outreach for the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Media Literacy Project.

article originally published at New Mexico Independent.

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