For more than a year, there has been a major media campaign to warn television viewers still using TV antennas that they need to upgrade their sets to digital receivers. Yet thousands of Long Islanders still stand to lose television signals this February 17 when the government-mandated transition from analog to digital signals takes place.
According to Jaci Clement, executive director of the Fair Media Council, a national media watchdog organization, more than 12,000 homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties still have not made the switch to digital television (DTV) hookups.
Ms. Clement said those statistics are based on Nielson Media Research, an American firm that measures media audiences, including television radio, theater, films and newspapers.
“We had to localize those numbers from Nielson,” Ms. Clement said, “but we feel they’re fairly accurate.”
The digital television transition will primarily affect households that rely on over-the-air broadcasting, instead of a pay-TV service. Households with cable or satellite may also experience problems in the switch to digital television if they have multiple televisions, and all those televisions are not DTV ready.
Ms. Clement noted that converter boxes should be hooked up and ready to go before February 17 to ensure no one loses access to news and information. The 12,000 regional households at risk are almost evenly split between Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to Ms. Clement. Nielsen research further shows that the households most at risk are those of the elderly and ethnically diverse populations, particularly Hispanic households.
P.C. Richard & Sons in Southampton is among the local electronic appliance stores that carry the converter boxes. Sales Counselor Phil Burns said he has personally sold roughly 15 small converter boxes to customers in the past two months.
Mr. Burns said that the boxes are easy to install, and that electronic associates are typically more than happy to explain to customers how to hook them up.
“We do diagrams that really help people out,” he said, noting that P.C. Richard is hesitant, for insurance purposes, to send technicians to people’s homes to install the boxes, however they do offer that service if necessary.
“But the installation is not a difficult thing at all,” Mr. Burns added. “Whether it’s a young person who isn’t out here all year round, or an elderly person who doesn’t want to pay for cable, most people can get it done. We can also council them into getting better service with Cablevision, which can take care of the hookups for them and make their lives a lot easier.”
Rosemary Kimball, spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission, said the U.S. government put aside roughly $30 million to help cover the cost of the converter boxes for at-risk households. Coupons for the converter boxes are available from the government, but Ms. Kimball said those coupons will soon run out.
“Coupons are going to be available until March 31,” Ms. Kimball said. “There have been 35 million coupons applied for, and about half of them have been cashed in, so we know a lot of people are getting the converter boxes.”
Ms. Clement added that it is not clear whether the $30 million set aside by the government would be enough to cover all the households that need converter boxes.
Roughly 20 million households nationwide still have yet to either switch to cable television or install a digital converter box, according to Nielson statistics.
Ms. Clement said that those looking to use coupons should apply for them now, and use them within 90 days, or else they’ll expire.
“The digital transition takes place in less than  days now,” Ms. Clement said, “so if they order the coupon now, it can’t expire before they use it.”
Every U.S. household is eligible to receive up to two coupons, worth $40 each, toward the purchase of eligible converter boxes. Converter boxes generally retail for between $40 and $70.
“We do encourage people to shop around, because they are priced differently,” Ms. Clement added.
She also warned consumers not to confuse DTV converter boxes with HDTV tuners that help enhance pictures for high definition televisions. People who have a main television hooked up to cable, but don’t have secondary television hooked into cable may need converter boxes for those TVs.
Ms. Clement said consumers can also contact local network television stations such as WABC, WNBC, WCBS, and FOX5, to help explain the transition.
“I’ll tell you though, the best explanation about DTV is done by the guys on ‘This Old House,’” Ms. Clement said, “because they actually walk you through the process.”
Rich Perello, who was shopping in P.C. Richard in Southampton last Wednesday, is not among those who need a converter box. The North Haven resident said he has been a Cablevision subscriber for years, and is not the least bit worried about the upcoming switchover. He does offer some stark advice for those who have yet to make the change to digital.
“You got to get with the times, I guess,” he chuckled. “I mean, what else are you going to do?”
To order coupons and for more information about the conversion to DTV, log on to www.dtvanswers.com, www.dtv.gov. Or log onto the FCC website, wwwfcc.gov, or call the FCC at 1-888-388-2009 (voice) or 1-877-530-2634 (TTY).