Report Shows Retailers Misleading Consumers on the Digital Television Transition

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Boston—On February 17, 2009, 22 million Americans who rely on free over-the-air analog broadcasting—including many elderly and low-income consumers—will be at risk of losing access to their television signal.

On this date, all TV stations will broadcast exclusively in digital signals. Consumers with older analog TVs that receive over-the-air signals will see their TVs go dark, unless it is retrofit with a digital converter box.  Consumers with cable or satellite service will not be affected.

To determine preparedness for the transition, MASSPIRG conducted a “secret shopper” survey at 132 locations of five leading national electronics retailers in ten states. The results were released today in a new report: Mixed Signals: how retailers mislead consumers on the digital Television (DTV) transition.

“Americans are largely unaware of the digital conversion,” said MASSPIRG Consumer Advocate Eric Bourassa. “And that includes retail sales clerks at electronics stores who are providing inaccurate or misleading information that may cost consumers time and money.”

The survey found that many sales clerks tried to persuade surveyors to buy new, expensive digital televisions or high-definition televisions rather than explaining the availability of the less expensive options such as buying converter boxes, discounted by government coupons available to anyone who needs one.

Specifically, retail store staff at these132 locations provided the following inaccurate or misleading information about the digital transition.

• 81% of the sales staff did not know about or gave out inaccurate information about converter boxes.

• 78% of the sales staff provided inaccurate information about the federal government’s coupon program for converter boxes.

• 42% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the month of the digital transition deadline date.

To protect consumers against misinformation or consumer fraud, MASSPIRG makes the following recommendations. Retailers must ensure:

• They adequately educate staff about converter boxes and the coupon program.

• Converter boxes are made available at fair prices.

• Consumers are informed of the availability of federal coupons.

• Analog TV sets remaining on store shelves are properly labeled and include information about the digital conversion.

Additionally, the federal government should enforce penalties against retailers that mislead or misinform consumers to reap greater profits from the sale of unnecessary equipment or services.

It is important to know that next year’s change does not require any household to purchase a new television set.  Households with older sets still receiving analog signals via antenna need only purchase a basic converter box that costs approximately $40.  And, the government is offering up to two $40 coupons per home to offset the cost of the most basic converters.

Read the full report at Consumers can also go online at or call the free government number 1-888-388-2009 to find out more about the government sponsored coupon program.  


MASSPIRG is a consumer protection and public interest organization.