Report: Consumer Protection

Mixed Signals

How Retailers Mislead Consumers on the Digital Television (DTV) Transition
Released by: Florida PIRG Education Fund

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. Consumers with older analog TVs receiving over-the-air television will see their televisions go dark, unless they 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.

Florida PIRG and other PIRG's around the country conducted “secret shopper” surveys at 132 electronics stores in ten states to determine if America’s big electronics retailers are properly preparing their customers for the digital transition.  The results were released today in Florida PIRG’s new report: “Mixed Signals: How Retailers Mislead Consumers on the Digital Television (DTV) Transition.”

"Retail sales clerks are often uninformed and are providing inaccurate  information about the upcoming digital transition. These mixed signals will cost consumers time and money, according to Florida PIRG Consumer Advocate Brad Ashwell.

“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,” said Ashwell. “The result is the same: consumers will pay too much for unneeded equipment or services.”

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, Florida PIRG’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.”

“Too many Americans remain unaware of the fact that television signals are going exclusively digital in just a year. The digital transition promises to bring more television programming with better picture and sound quality, but if consumers aren’t ready for it, these benefits will be sidelined by the outcry when analog televisions go dark. We need a comprehensive consumer education plan in place so that consumers are fully informed and ready for the transition," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

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.  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. 

Nationally, U.S. PIRG researchers found the following:

  • 81% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about converter boxes.
  • 78% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the coupon program.
  • 42% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the transition date.
  • 20% of sales staff tried to up-sell surveyors to digital TVs or upscale converter boxes.

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

“To protect consumers against misinformation or fraud, 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,” said Ashwell.  “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,” he concluded.

Additional tips for consumers are included in Florida PIRG’s report, downloadable at www.uspirg.org. Consumers can also go online at 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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