COLUMBUS - In just over a month, many Ohioans - a disproportionate number of whom are older - may find themselves cut off from a vital source of news, information and entertainment. At midnight on Feb. 17, all full-power broadcast TV stations are required to switch exclusively to a digital broadcast signal.
Most older Ohioans will do just fine during the transition, but many - particularly those who are older, poorer or more frail - will face significant challenges. They are more likely to have older, analog TVs and rely on over-the-air broadcasts. They may be less familiar with new technology and less able to access information about it. They also may have physical, financial or transportation barriers that would prevent them from purchasing and installing a new TV or converter box.
“Losing this valuable connection to the outside world could have serious consequences for more at-risk seniors,” said Barbara E. Riley, director of the Ohio Department of Aging. “Many older people live alone and have little support nearby. Without television, they may feel even more isolated, which can lead to increased anxiety and mental or physical decline.”
To continue receiving programs after Feb. 17, households that rely on over-the-air broadcasts must have a TV set equipped with a digital tuner, connect a digital converter box to their existing analog TV or subscribe to cable or satellite services.
The federal government has a program to provide each household with up to two $40 coupons to be used toward the purchase of a digital converter box that can be connected to most existing TVs. Converters cost between $40 and $70 and are available at most electronics retailers. Unfortunately, waiting lists for the program mean that most who apply for the coupons today will not receive them before the switch-over. Also, according to the federal Government Accounting Office (GAO), many seniors who received coupons failed to use them before their 90-day expiration date and are not allowed, under the program, to apply for new coupons.
The good news is the coupons are transferrable. The Department of Aging is asking all Ohioans who have a coupon they have not used and that has not expired, to consider giving it to someone they know who needs it, or to donate it to a local senior center or agency on aging so that they can use it to help those they serve. Individuals also might consider offering their services to take older relatives or friends to the store, select a converter box and install it.
For DTV transition assistance in your area, or to volunteer to help, call your Area Agency on Aging toll-free at 1-866-243-5678. For general information about the DTV transition, visit www.dtv.gov or call the FCC’s DTV hotline at 1-888-225-5322. To request a converter box coupon, visit www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009.
Facts about digital television and seniors:
• According to the National Association of Broadcasters, nearly 20 percent of U.S. homes rely exclusively on antennas to receive free, over-the-air broadcasts. Another 15 percent have at least one antenna-connected TV.
• Only 13 percent of the population has requested converter box coupons, says the GAO, and those who need them most, like seniors, have under-applied.
• According to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, at least eight million adults nationwide rely on analog television sets and over-the-air television signals.
• In Ohio, as many as 720,000 households of all ages are at risk of losing their TV signals if they don’t act, according to the Ohio Association of Broadcasters.
• As a group, seniors watch more TV than younger cohorts - an average of just over six hours each day among those age 55 or older, according to Nielsen surveys.
• Digital television provides a clearer, sharper picture and better sound than analog broadcasts. Also, digital technology allows stations to broadcast multiple channels of programming over the same signal, making specialty and alternative programming more available.
• According to the FCC, approximately 90 percent of TV broadcasters will use the digital switch to expand their viewing areas and reach more viewers.
• Viewers in the outlying areas of a station’s broadcast umbrella may have to adjust, repair or replace existing antennas to continue receiving signals.
• Some very old television sets may be incompatible with digital converter boxes or require special equipment for installation. The FCC provides helpful guides for installing on a variety of devices at its Web site, www.dtv.gov.