There is major confusion among consumers about the looming transition to digital television (DTV), according to a new survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. Seventy four percent of respondents who said they were aware of the upcoming transition had serious misconceptions of its impact.

The survey also found over one-third (36 percent) of Americans living in households with TVs are entirely unaware of the government-mandated transition to digital broadcasting slated for February 2009.

"Confusion about the digital television transition will cost consumers a lot of money for equipment they may not want or need," said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the non profit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Based on these survey results, it is now clear that the government and every media company that profits from people watching television must do whatever it takes to make sure consumers will keep getting broadcast TV without paying a dime more than necessary."

The federal government has allocated $5 million in public education funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has requested $1.5 million for the same purpose. This is in contrast to the $400 million the United Kingdom plans to spend on its public education campaign.

Even among those who are aware of the switch to digital broadcasts, there is widespread confusion about what it will require of consumers. Among those consumers who are aware of the transition, over half (58 percent) believe all TVs will need a digital converter box to function, 48 percent believe that only digital televisions will work after 2009 and nearly one quarter (24 percent) believe they will need to throw away all of their analog television sets; none of which is true.

On February 17, 2009, television broadcasters will end "analog" broadcasts and begin sending television signals in a "digital" format. The DTV transition will affect millions of consumers who use analog television sets to view free over-the-air programming. Analog televisions will either need to be connected to a digital converter box, attached to cable or satellite service or replaced with a digital TV by February 17, 2009.

Millions of Consumers to be Affected by the Transition

Based on the Consumer Reports survey, 99 percent of adults live in a household with at least one television, and many have two or more. According to the survey, 15 percent of Americans live in households that rely exclusively on over-the-air programming. If these consumers do not take some action before February 2009 -- such as buying a converter box -- over three quarters (78 percent) will have no televisions capable of receiving over-the-air broadcasting. That is 11 percent of Americans adults, or approximately 23 million people, who would be unable to watch TV.

Among paid television subscribers using analog TVs to receive their services:

  • 40 percent of paid television subscribers would have no working televisions if they choose to cancel their subscription, or if there is a service disruption;
  • 6 percent of paid television subscribers have at least one analog TV on which they currently watch over-the-air programming;
  • 46 percent of paid television subscribers indicated they would be concerned if they were not able to receive an over-the-air signal in an emergency service outage.

Consumers Unaware of Transition, Don't Know What To Do

Consumer Reports found a staggering lack of awareness and confusion among consumers about the DTV transition:

  • Of those who will have at least one TV affected, nearly two-thirds (61 percent) incorrectly believe they are not affected, do not know that they are affected or are completely unaware of the transition.
  • One-third (33 percent) of Americans in households that will have no functioning television after February 17th 2009 were completely unaware the transition is happening.

The confusion doesn't end there. Consumers may rush out to upgrade equipment, even though they may not need to:

  • One-third (33 percent) of consumers completely unaffected by the transition plan to buy a converter box and 31 percent plan to purchase a new digital television set with a built in digital tuner.
  • Although purchasing a converter box is by far the most popular action planned by those aware of the transition, a staggering 73 percent are unaware of the government coupon program created to offset the cost of purchasing one of these boxes