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Decision time looms for digital laggards

2008 Consumer Electronics Show
REUTERS/Steve Marcus
A customer checks out Samsung flat-panel TVs at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ever notice the language used to describe those who are slow to adopt technology? Techies enjoy sterling monikers; they're innovators and early adopters. But folks on the other end of the spectrum — those pathetic, lagging souls with their cassette tapes and bunny-eared TVs — are dubbed late adopters and laggards.

A more accurate label may be non-adopters. Lagging implies an attempt (if unsuccessful) to keep up, whereas non-adopter admits the cold, hard facts: Some folks have resigned to not adopt, period.

Up to this point, non-adopters have been left to their own quaint devices, blissfully ignorant of the growing gap between them and adopters. We have peacefully coexisted. They haven't bothered us, we haven't bothered them. In a year, though, they will be forced to do the very thing they have resisted their entire lives: adopt. If they don't make the transition to digital TV by Feb. 17, 2009, their antenna-clinging TV sets will go black. It is government mandated — requisite conversion and requisite convergence between adopters and laggards.

Reaching across the aisle 
"It's a strange topic in that we're forced to reach out to people who, in many cases, don't care that much about television," said Best Buy spokesman Brian Lucas. "Best Buy's core customer has already solved this problem, or doesn't need to solve the problem [because he or she already owns digital TVs], but this is requiring us to step out of our normal outreach."

Best Buy is reaching out to laggards before it's crunch time. The Richfield store hosted a Feb. 19 news conference with Sen. Amy Klobuchar explaining the digital TV transition and demonstrating how to set up the converter box that will enable analog TVs to operate on a digital signal. ("It's really easy," Lucas said. "It's just like hooking up a VCR. It's one cable, basically.")

Some 360,340 Minneapolis-St. Paul households — more than 20 percent — rely solely on analog TVs to receive free, over-the-air broadcasts, Consumers Union reported (PDF) last month. This puts the Twin Cities fifth in a rank of 13 metropolitan regions with more than 200,000 analog households.

To facilitate the transition, Lucas is trying to identify who exactly those analog owners are. One trait he knows: Many are silver haired. That's why AARP representatives attended the Feb. 19 conference.

Dick Malone, 87, a retired attorney from West St. Paul, is among them. "I've heard [about the digital transition], and I've paid no attention to it," he admitted. "I haven't given any thoughts to the implications."

Malone bought his analog television a decade ago. His viewing habits are simple. "My cheap TV set is pretty much tuned to Channel Two," he said. After learning his two options — buying a digital TV or a $20 converter — Malone reasoned: "If my TV set died permanently, it probably wouldn't hurt me much. But I would like to have a picture, and if getting a converter is the cheaper way to do it, that's probably what I'll do."

Clearing the confusion
Malone grasped his options quickly, but other late adopters require repeated instruction, Lucas said. "There are a lot of people who see our signs that say 'DTV is coming' and assume it's a marketing ploy. We feel like we're going to have to tell some people four or five times before they finally stop and think, 'Wait, this does apply to me.' "

Once they reach that realization, several other points often need to be clarified — like what a digital TV is. "I even get calls from TV reporters saying, 'I want to do something about the HDTV conversion,'" Lucas said. It's not high-def TVs that are being mandated, he tells them; it's digital TVs.

High-def televisions do use a digital signal — as do all TVs currently sold at Best Buy, as of last October — but that doesn't mean TV viewers need to buy a $1,000 flat panel to make the switch. A standard 20" digital TV will get the job done for $150.

Digital TVs produce clearer images. And yet, for those whose TV viewing is minimal — say, limited to the news — it might make more sense to buy a $20 converter to keep the picture running. Best Buy's converters are currently priced at $60, but the government is issuing coupons for $40 discounts, two per household. Applications are available online.

Beginning March 1, all TVs, VCRs and DVRs being imported into the U.S. must contain a digital tuner. Retailers may continue to sell analog devices from their existing inventory, but they're required to prominently display a consumer alert noting that it will require a converter box to operate in a year.

Christina Capecchi writes about culture and the social impact of technology. Capecchi can be reached at ccapecchi [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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