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Buckle Up As DTV Deadline Looms Friday

Finally, no fooling around, this time we mean it — June 12 is it, the deadline for the digital TV transition.

That’s the message from President Obama, who moved the deadline from Feb. 17 to this week. The president issued a statement last Thursday that there won’t be any further delays and that everyone who hasn’t prepared for the transition will lose their over-the-air access to television.

But there are still complaints that many “vulnerable communities,” as the president described them — lower-income families, the elderly, the disabled and those who speak no English — may get lost in the transition.

And they probably will. Americans are nothing if not procrastinators. But these communities may have more on their minds than worrying about the DTV transition, or don’t have the wherewithal to act, given the recession we are in.

The New York Times issued the alarm on Saturday, quoting Nielsen statistics showing that 10 percent of U.S. households with TVs are still unprepared. That’s although more than $2 billion was spent by the federal government to provide $40 coupons for DTV converter boxes, education programs and phone lines such as (888) DTV-2009.

This is a far cry from a couple of years ago when the original Feb. 17 deadline was set and many planned celebrations for the momentous occasion, especially TV makers and retailers. That was before a major recession and subsequent (and typical) plunging TV prices.

Still, HDTVs are selling this year, according to some top manufacturers and retailers I spoke with at the recent PRO Group meeting. But to call it a “windfall” as the Times and others have speculated is stretching the point, given narrow margins.

More than one supplier told me at the PRO meeting that the just about anyone who really needed a digital TV bought them before the old Feb. 17 deadline. But PRO Group executive director Dave Workman told TWICE that the 30 million or so DTV converter boxes sold are “really placeholders for a new TV set down the road. It raises awareness of HDTV.”

So as we reach the deadline this Friday — and in the following weeks and months as consumers really see what HDTV looks like compared with the images from a DTV converter box — sales of TVs may actually do well for the balance of the year, especially if the economy turns around.

As for June 12 and the days afterward, it will not be as peaceful as the Y2K scare that opened this decade and century. You will be sure to hear on local TV news, cable news networks and all over the Web and in print with any and every horror story about converter boxes not working, bad reception even with an HDTV and antenna, etc., etc., etc.

Retailers, manufacturers, broadcasters, federal, state and local officials should be prepared to buckle up, because June 12 and its aftermath may result in a bumpy ride in terms of public relations. Hopefully, when all the numbers are in, consumer disappointments and lack of service will be at a minimum.