I got a real happy surprise the other day when I opened the mail to discover the U.S. government had sent me $80. The last time that happened to me was some 50 years ago when I was presented with complete sets of work and dress clothes, complete with footwear and a rifle.
I got to keep the clothes but they took the gun back when I was discharged.
The gifted $80 was in the form of two credit card-like pieces of plastic, each worth $40 toward the purchase of digital-to-analog TV signal converter boxes to allow me to watch off-air signals after all the current analog TV broadcasts are scheduled to go dark.
What that indicated to me is that the process for the much-heralded transition to digital broadcasting is as bad a mess as I thought it would be. When I requested my converter box coupons I was told that as quantities would be limited, preference would be given to consumers relying on off-air signals for TV programming. I made it clear that I had cable. The fact that I was among the very early coupon recipients seems to mean that the coupon program has not gotten the desired response from the nation's targeted 20 million to-30 million non-cable/satellite homes.
Add this apparent failure to the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) order, issued under heavy pressure from an increasingly nervous Congress, requiring most broadcaster, cable/satellite operators and TV hardware manufacturers to vastly expand their efforts to educate consumers about the digital transition. This came just weeks after FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told an audience at the last International CES that there was no way the agency could delay the Feb. 17, 2009, transition deadline. That statement in itself was an indication of the concern of Congress and public interest groups that millions of consumer households are unaware of the pending change.
The results of a recent study appearing in Broadcasting & Cable, a TWICE sister publication, contends that just over 70 percent of U.S. households are familiar with the transition. Interestingly, that just about coincides with the number of off-air only TV homes. And how should that missing 30 percent know? All the ads that broadcasters run on TV tell consumers to check out DTV.gov on the Internet. But the groups who are going to be hit hardest are aged, low income, under-educated, non-English speakers living in single occupancy, retirement and/or sub-standard housing who may not be computer literate.
The cable/satellite operators are offering almost nothing in the way of education beyond assuring customers, "Don't worry about the transition, we will supply you with TV no matter what kind of TV you have."
Hopefully it is not too late and the whip the FCC has substituted for its voluntary carrot will serve to get the word out.
Retailers too should get behind the effort. I have yet to see a single retail ad announcing the availability of converter boxes. Such a notice should at least be footnoted in TV ads. Sales of high-priced HDTVs seem to be holding up, despite the currently soft economic conditions. But who really knows?
In any event, here's a great retail selling tip I picked up from Jack Wayman, the founder of International CES and still a Consumer Electronics Association representative. Millions of consumers will be getting IRS rebate checks starting in May. A smart dealer ad might say "Our Store will add 10 (or 15 or even 20) percent to a rebate check used to purchase an HDTV," with the bigger discounts offered for higher-ticket sets.