5 On Your Side

Digital TV coupons expiring too fast for some viewers

Posted September 24, 2008 4:50 p.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2008 9:33 p.m. EDT

— The digital-TV transition is coming, and some viewers are hitting a road block.

By law, on Feb. 17, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide will stop using the old method of transmitting TV signals, known as analog, and begin broadcasting exclusively in a digital format.

WRAL's 5 on Your Side is hearing about a variety of different problems with the transition, such as coupon cards expiring.

To get the digital signal, you either have to have cable or satellite service, a digital television or a converter box. To help defray the cost of digital converter boxes, every household can get up to two $40 coupons from the federal government, but there is a catch: The coupons expire after 90 days.

The problem is when the coupons started going out in February, that’s when retailers began stocking converter boxes. Retailers quickly ran out of boxes. So, a lot of viewers were unable to buy a qualifying converter box before their coupons expired.

A viewer wrote to 5 on Your Side, "I went to use mine and could not" because it "expired the day before."

Another person wrote, "No one had receivers in stock" and "my coupons expired."

A different viewer "checked every weekend for ... 2½ months" for a converter box.

The government will not replace expired coupons.

So 5 on Your Side called Todd Sedmak, who is the communication director for the National Telecommunications Information Administration, the group handling the coupon program. He suggested ordering the boxes online or over the phone if local retailers are out of stock. You can give your coupon number over the telephone and pay the difference with a credit card.

Also, people should go ahead and shop for the kind of box that they want as soon as they apply for coupons. That way, they will be ready when the coupon arrives.

Some members of Congress want the coupon expiration dates extended, but others argue the expirations are needed so consumers will not delay buying converter boxes. They don't want 20 million-plus people all waiting until the last minute.

Sedmak's advice for those holding expired coupons is to find a family member or friend who does not need one and ask them to apply.

For those people who haven't even thought about it yet, Sedmak says to apply for the coupons, buy a box and try it out before the official end of analog in February. Remember, the digital signal is already available.

Last week, WRAL took part in a statewide "soft test" designed to help people determine their digital TV readiness.

For one minute, WRAL aired two different segments at the same time: people who were ready for the digital transition saw a story about it, while those who aren't ready saw a warning message.

Anyone watching an analog television over the air without a converter box saw the message, which was the plan. At the same time, viewers who have cable or satellite service were supposed to see WRAL's story about the test – the one broadcast only in the digital format.

For many who rely on satellite service from Direct TV and Dish Network for their local channels, the test did not work. However, all satellite television viewers should be converted in December, well before the February deadline.

Fewer than 1 percent of Time Warner Cable analog customers also saw the ready message. TWC said it is confident the issue will be resolved by the change-over.

To find out more about the DTV transition, click here or call 1-888-CALL-FCC.