The Government Interrupts This Program ...

image1136023x.jpg
GENERIC TV television radio waves broadcast
CBS/AP

Next month, tens of millions of Americans may be watching static on their older TV sets. That's because of the government mandated switch to digital broadcasting - 69 million television sets in use today won't get the signal - and because a federal coupon program to provide converter boxes is on the rocks.

That will leave nearly 20 million American households without TV, unless they upgrade, which as CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, is easier said than done.

Christine Higby of Taylorsville, Utah, is one of the millions of Americans whose televisions will stop working at midnight on February 17 without a converter box.

"I just don't understand it," Higby said.

People with new TVs bought after 2004, or with cable or satellite services need not worry. But households who get their signals the old fashioned way, over the airwaves, will need a $50-$80 converter box. The problem is that the billion-dollar federal program to help people buy the boxes with $40 coupons has run out of money; and people like Higby are running out of time.

"I guess they just miscalculated how many people would want converter boxes," Higby said.

Just as the economic downturn has people foregoing expensive purchases like new TVs, government aid to buy converter boxes dries up. Those hardest hit are the elderly, the poor and rural Americans. And the government isn't very sympathetic, Whitaker reports.

"If they do not get their coupon in time, we recommend that they either buy a converter box without a coupon, buy another television, or connect to cable, satellite or another pay television service," says Meredith Atwell Baker, with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

That indifference doesn't sit too well with consumer advocates.

"It's very unfortunate that the federal government has mandated that this switch happen and then not help them through this transition," says Joel Kelsey of the Consumers' Union.

Going digital, with its crisper image, is the most revolutionary change since TV went color and no amount of fidgeting with rabbit ears will help. Public Service Announcements have raised awareness. Consumer Reports found that 90 percent of Americans know of the transition, but it also found 25 percent mistakenly believe they must have cable or satellite and 41 percent mistakenly think every TV must have a converter box.

But with the waiting list for the coupon program backlogged six weeks and with only five weeks to go until the switch, it's already too late for millions of Americans to avoid interruption of their regularly scheduled programming, Whitaker reports.