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The Gift Box

Back in the days when VCRs were high-tech, Jay Leno used to joke that when he visited his parents' home every Christmas he turned on their unit, then every Easter when he'd come over, he'd shut it off.

But this year, when you visit your parents, grandparents or even just tech-un savvy relatives during the holiday season, you could really help them by making sure their television sets are ready for the digital conversion on Feb. 17, 2009.

And if they aren't, help them get ready. It is a gift of time and attention, which is the best kind at any time but looks even more attractive in a bad economy.

They might have already received the $40 government coupon, in which case your magnanimous gesture would cost you, maybe,$20, maybe not even that.

Perhaps they don't have the coupon. That means buying the converter box. It's a good gift for older people, for whom television is often more than just a source of entertainment. It is, rather, a companion, and in times of bad weather or other catastrophes, could be a life-safer. They may have gotten the box, but haven't installed it yet. Help them hook it up and test it out for them, or if they already have it hooked up, show them how to rescan for new DTV channels.

Plenty of people embrace change without being quite able to grasp it. And in this, the season of giving, nothing could be a more thoughtful gift than sparing friends and relatives the frustration of not being able to do something everybody tells them is simple to do; that's a painful feeling for older folks. (Let them help you so they are part of the process. Who knows, they might wind up helping someone else.)

The digital converter box may be simple enough that any child can do it. The fact is, those children have grown up a with different skill set. (For example, ask that kid to type a letter on grandma's Underwood.) The FCC has identified older Americans as among the groups most likely to be challenged by the end of analog. Raycom chief Paul McTear has called it the older generation's “box-phobia,” his astute observation that many millions of Americans equate set-top boxes with complicating their lives.

If you're the designated digital converter box installer, you'd better make it clear that the thing works easily and well. (We are, of course, assuming it does both.)

And be patient. Tell them this box doesn't give them high-definition television. Tell them, if you wish, that they could spend the money on a new digital set (or go buy an easy-to-use one for them). Tell them, if they ask, that subscribing to cable television or a satellite system might be a good idea, but may give them more TV than they really want.

The National Association of Broadcasters has just announced the launch of a help line for those making the switch, and says it anticipates as many as a million calls on Feb. 18. Our goal should be to make sure none of those come from a parent or relative, or just a friend who needed our help.