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Bad advice from retailers on DTV conversion could cost consumers millions

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Release Date: June 17, 2008
Contact: 202-835-3323, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Washington, DC—Consumers aren’t getting accurate information from retailers about converting their televisions from analog to digital (DTV conversion), and that will cost them dearly, according to the National Consumers League (NCL). In the past week, NCL staff conducted an informal survey of Washington, DC-area major television retailers to test whether consumers inquiring about the DTV conversion were being given the right advice.

“We are just months away from the transition to digital television, and the fact that consumers whose screens will go blank come February 17, 2009 aren’t being given accurate information is frankly shocking,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

Over the past week, NCL staffers called or made in-person visits to seven1 major TV retailers in the Washington, DC area to inquire about the DTV transition, how to prepare for it, and whether they need converter boxes. While the boxes cost around $50 - $60 retail, the federal government is providing two free coupons for each household, worth $40 each, for use toward the purchase of up to two digital-to-analog converter boxes. Retailers are supposed to tell customers about the coupon and encourage them to apply before the consumer invests in the full cost of the box, which could save up to $80.00 per household. But NCL found that some stores' employees failed to mention the TV Converter Box Coupon Program run by the federal government.

Adding insult to injury, the salespeople also told NCL staff that all consumers who don’t subscribe to a paid television service (cable or satellite) would require the converter box equipment; this is wrong. Most late-model televisions, particularly those manufactured since 2004, are likely to be digital and do not require the converters. In one case, an employee said that any television that does not have a flat screen will require the box, another glaring inaccuracy.

“We are particularly concerned about elderly, low-income, and non-native English speakers,” Greenberg said. “They may be more likely to have older TVs that use only an analog signal, and they desperately need the savings these coupons provide. Our survey suggests they won’t get these savings unless retailers do a far better job of training their sales staff.”

Greenberg also noted, “Even consumers who are aware of the transition and do their homework about what questions to ask the retailers may be getting information that is inaccurate, and that could cost them a bundle.”

NCL is asking retailers to go back to the drawing board, to set up rigorous training for all of their sales force, and to include training protocols for any new hires that are selling televisions and TV equipment. The sales staff should provide the following information to consumers:

  • If you have cable or satellite, you don’t need a converter box.
  • If you have a television manufactured after 2004, you very likely don’t need a converter box, but check the television and/or manual to be sure that you have a digital tuner.  Some televisions manufactured before 2004 have digital tuners, but not very many.
  • Flat screen televisions and high definition monitors may be analog so consult your manual or the TV itself
  • If you do need a converter box, you can apply for two $40 coupons per household at www.DTV.gov. Converter boxes typically cost from $50 to $60 so it pays to apply for the coupon, which you can do online, by mail, by phone or by fax. Your coupon should arrive within two weeks, and they expire 90 days after they are mailed.

1 Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, Circuit City, Kmart, Sears

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About the National Consumers League
Founded in 1899, the National Consumers League is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Its mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. NCL is a private, nonprofit membership organization. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.