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Bruce Speight,
WISPIRG Foundation

Retailers Misleading Consumers on the Digital Television (DTV) Transition

WISPIRG conducts survey of national TV retail stores and finds that consumers are getting mixed signals

In one year, 22 million Americans who rely on free over-the-air analog broadcasting – including many elderly and other vulnerable populations – will be at risk of losing access to TV, which for many is a primary source of news and emergency information as well as entertainment.

On February 17, 2009, all TV stations will begin broadcasting exclusively in digital signals. If you have an older analog TV and you receive over-the-air television, your TV will go dark, unless you retrofit it with a digital converter box. Consumers with cable or satellite service will not be affected.

Many consumers are just now hearing about the government-ordered digital transition and they are going to electronics retail stores to ask questions about what is necessary to maintain their TV reception.

One consumer advocacy organization, WISPIRG, has conducted “secret shopper” surveys at 132 electronics stores in ten states – including Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin – to determine if America’s big electronics retailers are properly preparing their customers for the digital transition. The results were released today in WISPIRG’s new report: “Mixed Signals: How Retailers Mislead Consumers on the Digital Television (DTV) Transition.”

“The results of our survey are clear,” said Bruce Speight, Advocate with WISPIRG. “Retail sales clerks are providing inaccurate or misleading information about the upcoming digital transition and these mixed signals will cost consumers time and money.”

The transition to a digital system was first mandated by Congress in 1996. Broadcasters, manufacturers and retailers were informed. Twelve years later, and just one year out from the date of transition, WISPIRG’s report finds that accurate information about the transition is hard to come by in most retail stores.

“The DTV transition is a shared obligation,” said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. “As the first line of defense, retailers should redouble their efforts to educate consumer service reps and the public about the converter box program and the DTV transition generally. A national state of confusion must be avoided at all costs. We're only going to be successful if everyone does their part.”

It is important to know that next year’s change does not require any household to purchase a new television set. Households with older sets still receiving analog signals via antenna need only purchase a basic converter box that costs approximately $40. And, the government is offering up to two $40 coupons per home to offset the cost of the most basic converters.

However, some sales clerks tried to persuade PIRG’s “secret shoppers” to buy new, expensive digital televisions or premium converters, which will not be covered in the government’s coupon program.

“To consumers, it does not matter whether sales clerks were intentionally misleading our secret shoppers to sell more expensive items, or if they were simply misinformed” continued Speight. “The result is the same: consumers will pay too much for unneeded equipment or services.”

Nationally, almost half of sales staff surveyed did not provide accurate information on the date the transition would take place – answers ranged from “sometime soon” to “probably not until 2010.”

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, we found the following:

100% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about converter boxes.

67% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the coupon program.

33% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the transition date.

WISPIRG called on retailers to properly educate their employees and their customers about the digital TV transition.

“To protect consumers against misinformation or fraud,” said Speight, “retailers must provide proper information about the converter boxes they sell and about the government-sponsored coupon program that is designed to offset the cost of the converter boxes. They must also properly label analog TV sets that are still on their shelves with warnings informing buyers about the need for a converter box after next February.”

Speight also recommended that the government step in to enforce penalties against retailers that mislead or misinform consumers to reap greater profits from the sale of unnecessary equipment.

Additional tips for consumers are included in the WISPIRG report, downloadable at www.wispirg.org. Consumers can also go online at www.dtv.gov or call the free government number 1-888-388-2009 to find out more about the government-sponsored coupon program.

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