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Let the IRS Help With DTV

As of March 1, all new TV and video products imported into the U.S. or shipped to retailers were required to have a digital tuner. That means that, while a consumer can still find an analog-only set in some dusty corner of a bad appliance store, the government-mandated demise of analog is officially in progress. The end of analog is near.

But it's fair to say that few consumers know that, as of Feb. 18, 2009, the big-screen analog TV they just got a great deal on will just be a piece of useless furniture, without help from Uncle Sam.

About 17% of the population—more than 18.8 million households—receive broadcast television over-the-air, not via cable or satellite. Many of them are elderly, poor or poorly educated. When the National Association of Broadcasters last month studied consumer awareness of digital issues, not one of the 800 over-the-air viewers represented in the survey could even guess when the digital transition was happening. And 57% of them said that they had “seen, read or heard nothing” about the digital transition.

According to every survey on the subject, very few consumers of any kind know that the U.S. government is going to spend $1.5 billion on coupons it will send out to help consumers buy a converter box that will convert a digital signal to an old analog set.

To get those coupons, consumers will have to submit a form to the government, no doubt filled with a mixture of tech terms and bureaucratese. It is likely that poor and elderly consumers will find that hardest to do. Consumers who already have cable (and therefore get broadcast signals downloaded from the cable converter box) may have another unhooked Philco in the rec room that could be imperiled. We suspect they'll be the first people to grab those coupons.

The government is plotting a puny $5 million publicity campaign to alert consumers. TV groups including the NAB will mount a more substantial campaign this fall. Even so, the transition isn't simple to understand, especially for older folks who still wonder why they can't call their bank and talk to a real person anymore.

We have a plan to make it easy and fair on the public.

Every year, 125 million taxpayers who fill out IRS forms are asked to check a box if they'd like to designate $3 of their taxes to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

If, on the 2008 IRS forms, taxpayers were asked to check off that they were eligible for the coupons, it would give them an easy way to opt-in.

Right now, there is a real possibility that the bucks from the coupons will be exhausted before viewers who will need them can get them. The IRS could solve that, too, by using some of the money it collects to pay for enough boxes for everyone. Better yet, take the necessary bucks from the anticipated billions that will be raised when the people's analog airwaves are auctioned.