Attention Walmart shoppers: digital TV converters on aisle 37

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Iâ''ve been following the digital tv transitionâ''the countdown to Feb. 17, 2009, when analog television in the U.S. goes darkâ''pretty closely. In general, I think the Department of Commerce has been doing a good job getting the word out about the transition through public service announcements and a p.r. campaign. If you watch any English or Spanish language TV at all, and donâ''t Tivo through the commercials, you have likely heard multiple times about the $40 coupons available for people who need converter boxes and donâ''t want to either subscribe to cable or buy a new television. (Iâ''m actually in that group (though my husband is pushing for a new TV), are is my mother and aunt.) This group includes almost 19 percent of the U.S. TV households, or over 20 million people, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, and others who want to convert second or third televisions in their homes, even though their newest TV is already digital.

Thereâ''s no denying there are problems with the transition; my coupons (they look and function like debit cards) took months to arrive after I ordered them in late January, and expire next month. Stores donâ''t always have converter boxes in stock; last week, during a meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, several Congressmen proposed extending the expiration dates, since a reported 60 percent of coupons issued are expiring without being used. (You canâ''t order new coupons after yours expire; itâ''s two per household, thatâ''s it.) The FCC will likely run out of coupons long before the transition date; Congress budgeted $1.5 billion for the program, but that wonâ''t cover everybody. So far, nearly 17 million coupons have been requested, over 15 million mailed, and just over 3 million used.

Enough backstory. Yesterday I went into Walmart, coupons in my purse, digital recorder in hand (Iâ''m working on a podcast about the digital TV transition). I expected that Iâ''d ask about coupon-qualifying converter boxes and my question would baffle the sales

clerk. Heck, itâ''s hard to get someone at Walmart to tell me where the cat food is.

â''Theyâ''re in aisle 37,â'' the Walmart associate I approached reported, pointing a few aisles to her right. â''We only have the RCA ones in stock right now.

â''Uh, do you know anything about them?â''

â''The RCA ones are better than the Magnavox.â''

â''They are?â''

â''Oh yeah.â''

Wow. I was impressed. She really seemed to know something. â''Are you selling a lot of them?â''

â''Uh huh.â''

She seemed so knowledgable, I was tempted to ask her about the cat food, but I resisted and went straight to the converter display, about six shelves, half empty. I wasnâ''t the only one holding my coupon card and comparing it against the box to make sure the RCA gizmo qualified for the discount. â''Radio Shack is sold out,â'' another customer offered as she took a box off the shelf. She wasnâ''t happy about having to go to two stores. Frankly, she wasn't happy about the digital TV transition in general, and wasnâ''t planning to hook it up until she absolutely had to next year. But I guess she heard the news that she'd have to do it eventually and that she needed to get and redeem a coupon while the coupons are still available.

I just bought one converter, though I have two coupons. Including tax, it cost $10 and change over the $40 coupon price. The checkout clerk grabbed my card and scanned it since I was a little slow getting it into the scanner; I had to sign for the purchase, as if it were a credit card. She also confirmed that converter sales were hot.

Next: off to a specialized electronics store for converter number two.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

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