NEWBURYPORT - For those who rely on "rabbit ears" or antennas to view their favorite television programs, time is running out.
This time next year, the way Newburyport residents watch television will be changing. In February 2009, the television sets of old will be no more, making way for digital cable to take over.
In 2005, Congress passed the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act, which mandates the switch from analog to digital TV in order to free up more frequencies for police, fire and emergency radio transmissions.
After two years of planning, the first steps toward the switch came on Tuesday when a coupon was made available to help those who currently have analog TV to switch to digital.
The implementation of digital TV has recently come under fire by watchdog agencies that say the elderly and low-income people will not be able to afford this change. According to a study by the Association of Public Television Stations, seniors are likely to suffer the most when the digital switch is flipped because they are more likely to rely on free over-the-air analog signals to watch the news, weather and entertainment programing.
People who watch satellite or cable TV are not affected.
Locally, Newburyport Council on Aging director Roseann Robillard confirmed the switch will hurt the elderly.
"It will be a blow to those people who don't have the proper equipment or the means to get it," Robillard said. "A lot of seniors are on a fixed or limited income, and watching TV is the entertainment they could afford until now."
"This could become a real challenge for them when it goes into effect," Robillard said.
Until March, residents will be able to apply for a coupon that can be put toward a converter box that will convert the analog signals to digital. The $40 coupon will help offset the price of the box, which costs anywhere from $50 to $70.
"Any senior who considers this a challenge and needs help can contact me, and we can figure out a way to resolve the problem," Robillard said, noting it will most likely involve help from the community or any resources available to find the money needed.
"Its a wonderful idea if they have family who never know what to give mom or dad for their birthday to gift them with a new TV."
At Community Action Inc. in Haverhill, which serves the local area, Associate Director Richard Lynch doesn't know how low-income families will be able to afford a new television or converter box.
"When everything is going up, it's just another addition lower-income people won't be able to afford," Lynch said. "They will have to choose between paying, rent, utility, food costs or entertainment."
Lynch said Community Action Inc. is researching the change and what can be done to help low-income families make the transition.
So far, eight of the largest consumer electronics retailers - Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart - have been certified to participate in the converter box coupon program along with more than 100 other retailers.
RadioShack in Port Plaza will be participating in the program, though the converter boxes have not come in yet, sales associate Craig Duby said.
To receive a coupon, analog TV owners can apply online, by phone or through the mail.
The Nielsen Co. estimates that 14.3 million households, or about 13 percent of the 112.8 million total television households in the nation, rely on over-the-air television broadcasts for programming.
Tony Wilhelm, director of consumer education for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the agency expects to have enough coupons to satisfy demand.
"We think the high number will be 26 million," he said. "Low end is 10 million."
Converter Box Coupon Options
Jan. 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009
* Apply online at www.dtv2009.gov
* Call 888-388-2009, TTY 877-530-2634
* Mail an application to: P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000
* Fax an application to 877-388-4632
* There are no income guidelines for eligibility.
* The government will begin distribution coupons on Feb. 17
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration