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No Need To Panic

Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro has a simple message about the digital TV transition: Stay calm.

Shapiro, a lobbyist for the firms that make the eye-pleasing HDTV sets bought by millions of Americans, declared that people wouldn’t panic and would rebound quickly if they fail to prepare for the digital-television transition scheduled to occur early next year.

Worse things can happen than losing TV service, he said.

“This is not people losing their homes,” Shapiro told a luncheon audience comprised mostly of communications lawyers. “This is people losing TV services.”

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow, positioning himself somewhere between “complacency and panic,” said a technology shift affecting every American would inevitably result in a few hiccups. I am not convinced we are going to achieve perfection,” McSlarrow said.

Both Shapiro and McSlarrow offered their takes at a forum here exactly 364 days before full-power TV stations by law must drop their analog signals and go all-digital, potentially leaving millions of Americans with dark TV screens.

“If we don’t panic, we’ll be fine,” Shapiro insisted. “This is not the end of the Republic. This isn’t medicine or health or food. It’s TV.”

People in broadcast-only homes with analog television sets need to take action before TV stations shut off their analog signals on Feb. 17, 2009. They can buy a digital-to-analog converter box, subscribe to cable or satellite TV, or buy a digital set.

Cable operators need to worry about customers with analog TV sets not connected to a pay TV service. That’s complicating the industry’s message that broadcasters’ DTV transition will have no impact on cable subscribers.

“Quite frankly, I’m not sure we have gotten the message exactly right,” McSlarrow said.

An estimated 11 million to 19 million homes that are broadcast-only are the most at risk because their analog TV sets won’t display digital signals on Feb. 18, 2009 without modification.

According to CEA, about half of all U.S. homes already have DTV sets. But it’s not clear how many broadcast-only homes have purchased TVs with digital tuners.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has $1.5 billion to subsidize the retail purchase of converter boxes, with each household eligible to receive two $40 coupons to spend on boxes expected to cost between $40 and $70 each. NTIA began mailing coupons last week.

More than 3 million households have applied for nearly 5.8 million coupons, NTIA communications director Todd Sedmak said.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and regulators at the Federal Communications Commissions fear a severe consumer backlash if too many people don’t get the word.