Federal converter box coupon program runs out of funds

Rick Wagner • Jan 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

If you haven’t applied for a digital converter box coupon for your old analog television, chances are you won’t get one in time for the planned Feb. 17 demise of full-power analog TV.

A spike in demand over the weekend put the federal Digital Converter Box Coupon Program at its funding limit of $1.34 billion in issuing coupons.

“I’m not surprised that they’ve run out,” said George DeVault, general manager of Holston Valley Broadcasting, which includes the WKPT-TV 19 ABC affiliate in Kingsport.

“The word I get on the street for the past few weeks is people are ordering them right and left,” DeVault said. “One of the biggest ways this is going to affect people is on their second or third sets.”

The $40 coupons can be used toward the retail purchase of converter boxes, although consumers also can buy a box without a coupon, buy a TV with a digital tuner, hook up to cable or satellite service, or buy another device such as a DVD recorder with a digital tuner.

A record 7.2 million people requested coupons in December compared to 4.9 million in November, 3.9 million in October, and an average of 3.5 million from September back to January, when the program started.

Redemption rates initially were about 52 percent but increased to 58 percent to 60 percent.

Projections are that the program could end up running 2.5 million short to meet coupon requests without additional funding from Congress, said Meredith Baker, acting assistant administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

She attributed part of that to a downturn in the economy that may cause people to opt for a converter instead of a new TV.

In addition, Baker said federal accounting rules will not allow more coupons to be issued until existing coupons expire, which at 60 percent redemption would occur at about 351,000 a week.

In all, Baker projected about 6 million more coupons would in effect be redistributed.

“I think most likely a lot of this planning was done hastily,” said Jack Dempsey, general manager of the WJHL-TV 11 CBS affiliate in Johnson City. “It is a major transition to change standards the way we are in February.”

Jim McKernan, general manager of NBC affiliate WCYB-TV 5 in Bristol, Va., could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Dempsey and DeVault said about 6.5 percent of greater Tri-Cities households use over-the-air television signals, which Dempsey said worked out to about 22,600 out of 320,000.

Channel 11 is doing a series of one-minute halts to its regular analog broadcasting during newscasts to drive home the changeover to viewers, generating calls. Channel 19 has done such a “soft” analog shutdown at a random time and plans to do more, DeVault said.

Baker encouraged those who have not applied for a coupon but need one to go ahead and make other arrangements, including buying a box without a coupon, before Feb. 17.

Baker said as issued coupons expire, those who get on the waiting list will receive coupons on a first-come, first-served basis — but likely not in time for the Feb. 17 analog-to-digital switch for full-power TV across the nation.

As of Monday afternoon, that list had about 103,000 names, she said.

“Anyone who requests coupons now will be put on a waiting list,” Baker said.

She said those who request a coupon online or on the phone should write down a reference number provided so they can track their coupon online.

For more information visit www.DTV2009.gov.

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