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DTV and the elderly: Problem won’t solve itself

August 1st, 2007

Switching to digital TV broadcasts will be a chore for some Americans, including many seniors. Hooking up a DTV converter box, scanning for channels, possibly getting up on the roof to fiddle with an antenna…let’s face it, the set-up will be daunting for some folks.

Age isn’t the issue. At 84, Sumner Redstone is still in charge at CBS, after all. I know of seniors who will make the transition from over-the-air analog TV to digital, no problem. But for anyone who is mobility-impaired or in frail health, the road to DTV is an uphill climb.

Here is how one television station manager approaches the issue:

I’m willing to bet that charitable organizations will help the elderly and homebound locate and install set-top converters.

Uh-oh.

If that’s the solution the TV industry is counting on, I’m afraid we’re in trouble.

Now, I don’t want to pick on that general manager, who wrote to the local newspaper with good intentions, hoping to reassure his viewers. What he says sounds reasonable enough. But let’s think through the mechanics of the problem. Can you think of any existing charity that does this sort of thing?

I’m drawing a blank.

Charitable organizations offer specific programs, which require planning and funding. They need to solicit volunteers and train them. Unfortunately, there isn’t any central charity that I know of with the mission of simply going out to people’s houses and helping them with whatever they need.

What organization would be a natural for this kind of program? Broadcasting groups? Ham radio clubs? If broadcasters reach out to local organizations and contribute funding and expertise, perhaps they would be willing to build new programs that offer help to targeted populations.

Government and the TV industry have offered plenty of DTV communications plans that include outreach to seniors, but I have yet to see any program that will go to the homes of viewers and help them through their nuts-and-bolts installation issues.

Whose problem is this to solve? In Britain (where viewers pay a “TV license” fee), a program offers free installation help to people who need it—at substantial government cost, I might add. The U.S. government, of course, is already spending up to $1.5 billion on the DTV converter box coupon program. Should federal assistance subsidize installation, too? I can’t see throwing more tax dollars toward the promotion of a particular form of television delivery. The FCC could place a surcharge on broadcast licensees to pay for installation help, perhaps. But shouldn’t broadcasters solve the problem themselves?

Station owners could work with nonprofit organizations to build a volunteer force to help with the transition. Volunteer groups don’t generally carry ladders, alas, and digital television may not fit into the human services mission of every organization. But such a project is not out of the question. Another approach would be for stations to contract with TV repair shops, antenna installers or in-home tech support services.

Many Americans who need assistance setting up a new HDTV or converter box can count on family or friends. As hard as it is to believe, though, some people have no one at all; and those are the folks who will need our help the most.

Comments (3)


  1. minuet says:

    I work with seniors and recently caught part of a story about this conversion. Your article is right on target. Government agencies are requiring seniors to apply for assitance on line. Not only can they not afford computers but many are afraid of them. With this conversion there will be a lot of seniors falling off roofs and ladders. No current nonprofit that I am aware of will have the resources to provide this service.


  2. hdtv antenna master says:

    Many seniors prefer indoor antennas for the reason you have mentioned. The installation is a lot easier.


  3. An elderly volunteer with regular old TV says:

    We will just call the young man at that TV station to help us get these TV antennas on our roofs and install the boxes. WHAT volunteers is he talking about? Most volunteers are elderly!!! We all want his number since it is HIS idea! I sure can’t afford to pay someone.

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