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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Transition in Trouble: Action Needed to Ensure a Successful Digital Television Transition

Many Will Suffer Significant Harm if the DTV Transition Fails

The Leadership Conference believes that access to communications is a fundamental right of every American. What is at stake for our nation in making a successful transition from analog to digital broadcasting is not simply a matter of being able to watch Dancing With the Stars or reruns of Friends with higher quality audio and video. At stake is the ability of the nation's most vulnerable populations to maintain uninterrupted access to their key source of news and information and emergency warnings: free, over-the-air television. It would be a denial of this fundamental right to access communications, as well as a great tragedy, if in February 2009 these millions of Americans are suddenly cut off from local community news, information and emergency warnings because their televisions do not receive digital broadcasts.

The need to preserve this critical television lifeline is particularly important for the communities that LCCR member organizations represent. In 2005, the GAO found that up to 19 percent, or roughly 21 million American households, rely exclusively on free over-the-air television. These consumers will face an expensive choice in transitioning to digital television: subscribe to cable or satellite, buy a digital television set, or purchase a digital-to-analog converter box. All of these options cost money. While the government's converter box coupon program will provide up to two converter box coupons per household, there are many households with more than two older televisions that rely exclusively on free over-the-air television, or that for a variety of reasons will not participate in the coupon program. For many low-income families and for many elderly persons living alone and on Social Security, a single converter box purchased without the government coupon can cost more than a week's food budget. And, obviously, the cost of purchasing a new digital television set or subscribing to cable or satellite is even higher.

We are especially concerned because poor, minority, senior, and disabled communities are disproportionately affected by the transition, as they are far more likely to rely on free over-the-air television.

  • Forty-eight percent of over-the-air television viewers have incomes under $30,000, according to the GAO8.
  • Non-white and Hispanic households are more likely to rely on over-the-air television than are White and non-Hispanic households, according to the GAO9.
  • One-third of the 21 million over-the-air households (or seven million people) are Spanish-language speakers.10
  • Eight million of the 21 million over-the-air households include at least one person over 50 years of age.11
  • One-third or more of over-the-air television viewers have disabilities, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities.

America's Hispanic community, for example, "depends on over-the-air television service as a critical source of news, public affairs and other uniquely local information that is necessary to keep Spanish-speakers in the mainstream of American life," according to Manuel Mirabal of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership.12 Mirabal testified to Congress that, "as the FCC and the GAO recently acknowledged, reliance on over-the-air analog reception is highest among Hispanic viewers, one-third of whom continue to rely exclusively on over-the-air reception for all of their television viewing. An additional seven percent of Hispanic households are direct broadcast satellite households that rely on over-the-air reception for all of their local programming. Thus, a total of 40 percent of Hispanic households nationwide rely exclusively on over the-air reception for their local news, emergency information, and other local programming."

Yet Nielsen found that although Hispanic households make up 11.3 percent of total U.S. households, they make up 19.9 percent of households that are "Completely Unready" for the DTV transition.13 Moreover, reports Nielsen, "10.3% of Completely Unready households speak Only Spanish, a penetration that is five times greater than that of Only Spanish households in the U.S. In addition, 5.6% of Completely Unready households speak Mostly Spanish, a penetration that is nearly double that of Mostly Spanish households in the U.S."14

Clearly more needs to be done - and done quickly - to inform Hispanic households about the digital television transition. As Mirabal testified to Congress, "Local broadcast stations featuring Univision, Telemundo, TeleFutura, Azteca and other Spanish-language programming available over-the-air provide to their audiences Spanish language news, information, and other programming on current events that affect their daily lives and keep them connected to their communities and the world." He concluded that, "While we (the Hispanic community) all look forward to the benefits that digital television will bring to all Americans, the DTV transition must be managed in a way that does not disenfranchise millions of Hispanic Americans. Only then will Americans of Hispanic descent, who depend on free, over-the-air television, be fully included in the digital transition."15

Other communities for whom English is not the primary language express similar concerns about potential disenfranchisement by the digital transition. For example, the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) notes that, "(T)hree of the five largest Asian American ethnic groups are among the most limited English proficient racial and ethnic groups in the United States, with 61 percent of Vietnamese, 46 percent of Koreans, and 45 percent of Chinese nationwide experiencing some difficulty speaking English. Furthermore, six Asian American ethnic groups: Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, Bangladeshi, and Taiwanese have majority limited English proficient populations." At the same time, many of these groups have significantly higher numbers than the national average living below the federal poverty line. As a result, AAJC is very concerned that the limited English-speaking members of its communities are not only least likely to know about the coupon program but will also be least likely to receive the first-come, first-served coupons.

For the elderly, "television can be a primary connection to the outside world - providing life-saving weather forecasts, public safety announcements, information on government and politics, and community news. In fact, "Americans aged 50 and above watch the greatest average number of hours of television a day, almost 5.5 hours," according to Nelda Barnett, a member of AARP's board of directors.16 She noted that "for older Americans additional, non-monetary costs (of the digital transition) may be especially challenging: the inconvenience of searching for an available converter box, potential difficulties in attaching the converter box to the back of their set, and confusion regarding the transition itself."

In July 2007, the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) commissioned a study by the Centris group on the potential impact of the digital transition on the elderly. Centris found that older Americans:

  • Over age 65 are more likely to be found in OTA (over-the-air) households;
  • As a group, are less likely to have purchased a new TV in the past three years;
  • Are less likely to have HDTV capabilities in their households; and
  • Are less likely to own a digital TV.

The survey analysis conducted by Centris concluded:

  • Older Americans over 65 are a more vulnerable group with respect to maintaining television services as the digital transition is completed;
  • Older Americans will not be as exposed to DTV transition messages from electronic retailers as will younger members of the population; and
  • The population of older Americans will need special focus in efforts to educate the public with respect to the end of the DTV transition.17

Wallace Page, 87, illustrates the reliance many seniors place on television, and the challenge of coping with the digital transition. According to a recent story in Washington Post,18

(Page) begins and ends each day with his television. His tired legs don't let him get out much anymore, he doesn't own a computer and reading often strains his eyes. The TV set is sometimes his only connection to the outside world.

Page said his TV is often all that breaks the solitude of his days at Friendship Terrace Apartments, a retirement community in Northwest Washington.

"For people who are alone, the TV is the only voice you hear," said Page, who mostly watches news and documentary programs. He also recently got hooked on "That '70s Show" reruns, which remind him of a different time.19

Regarding the digital transition, Page said, "[I]t's a little frightening to hear about such a vast change."20

Veronica Damesyn Sharp, the executive director of The District of Columbia Health Care Association, which oversees 16 nursing homes, worries that "some residents are too frail to go to the common room to watch the buildings' main TVs, which are hooked up to cable. And many cannot afford to buy a new TV or a converter box, let alone get cable service."21

Television is "a connection to the outside world" for many seniors, says Debra Berlyn, a spokeswoman for the AARP on the digital television transition. Because many elderly are shut-ins who may have no relatives or who might require help in purchasing and installing the converter boxes, making the digital transition a success for many seniors is "not just a matter of giving someone a brochure - it's going a step beyond that. We're calling on everyone in the community to help."22

For people with disabilities, the challenge of the digital transition may be even more daunting. In addition to all the other difficulties and concerns reported by other communities, individuals with disabilities face unique issues in successfully transitioning to digital television. Claude Stout, executive director of Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc., testified on behalf of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet23 that:

  • Caption viewers report a number of technical difficulties associated with viewing captions on digital televisions, including captions that are garbled, delayed, misplaced, or otherwise unintelligible;
  • Networks whose analog channels were previously covered by the FCC's closed captioning mandates now deny coverage for their new HD channels, even when the newer channels have the same programming format as their analog predecessors;
  • Viewers are having a hard time figuring out how to access closed captions and video descriptions on DTV components, including tuners supplied by television manufacturers and set top boxes provided by cable and satellite companies;
  • Consumers are struggling to resolve complaints about DTV issues with companies or with the FCC; and
  • Individuals who are blind or have low vision still have negligible access to television programming because of the scarcity of video description. 24

And, while converter boxes are required to pass through closed captioning, they are not required to pass through video description.25 For people with disabilities, learning which boxes are certified to pass through video description, and then actually locating and purchasing such a box, is an arduous task.

Importantly, many non-disabled seniors also rely on captioning to receive information from their televisions. To address ongoing problems with closed captioning and video description that disproportionately impact many LCCR communities, the American Association of People with Disabilities, Consumer Federation of America, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and other groups recently wrote to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin calling for the commission to consider whether television manufacturers should include "an inexpensive automatic software upgrade capability" to quickly remedy software flaws so that "new DTVs and converter boxes will be more durable and useful for consumers than is the case without that capability."26

Some or all of these potential problems with the digital transition impact a large percentage of Americans. COAT reports that there are "over 31 million individuals with hearing loss, 10 million individuals who are blind or have hearing loss, and millions of individuals with other disabilities who benefit greatly from accessible television programming."27 Moreover, reports Stout, industry and government customer service representatives are not adequately trained to help people with disabilities who have questions about how to set up captioning and other features on their digital televisions and converter boxes.

The bottom line is that television is a critical connection to American society for tens of millions of members of LCCR communities, including low-income families, people with disabilities, seniors, and those for whom English is not their primary language. If the transition from analog to digital television is not successful for these communities, then on February 17, 2009, an important connection to their communities and the rest of the nation may be severed.

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8. Digital Broadcast Television Transition: Estimated Cost of Supporting Set-Top Boxes to Help Advance the DTV Transition, GAO, February 17, 2005, p. 4, included as Enclosure II of Digital Television Transition: Issues Related to an Information Campaign Regarding the Transition (pdf), GAO-05-940R, September 6, 2005, p. 47.

9. Id.

10. Alex Nogales, President & CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, July 26, 2007.

11. Lavada DeSalles, Member, Board of Directors, AARP, testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, March 10, 2005.

12. Manuel Mirabal, Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, March 10, 2005.

13. The February 2009 Digital Television Transition, The Nielsen Company, May 2008, p. 4.

14. Id.

15. Testimony of Manuel Mirabal, note 12, above.

16. Nelda Barnett, Member, Board of Directors, AARP, testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, July 26, 2007, citing Nielsen Media Research, 2005.

17. Id., citing Centris, Analysis of Older Americans and the Digital TV Transition, July 2007.

18. As TV Goes Digital, Some Viewers May Be in the Dark, Washington Post, March 31, 2008.

19. Id.

20. Id.

21. Id.

22. Id.

23. Claude Stout, Executive Director, Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc., testimony on Behalf of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, October 17, 2007.

24. Id.

25. Video Descriptions and the Digital Television Transition, FCC Consumer Advisory, June 9, 2008.

26. Letter to the FCC from Consumer, Civil Rights, & Disability Groups: Investigate Lack of Automatic DTV Upgrade, May 13, 2008.

27. Testimony of Claude Stout, note 23 above.

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