Universal City_PBS chief Paula Kerger said it's inexcusable that people seeking coupons for the looming digital TV conversion are being put on a waiting list, and she called for immediate federal action.
"I'm very disheartened to hear that with a month before the (conversion) deadline, the federal government has run out of money to help citizens purchase digital converter boxes," Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System, said Wednesday.
She pushed for Congress and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the coupon program, to work together to quickly remedy the situation.
It's especially crucial because "people are making very hard economic choices in their households" and more are depending on free, over-the-air television instead of cable or satellite, Kerger told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.
The switch to digital television is set for Feb. 17.
Consumers don't need a coupon to purchase a converter box. They also can sign up for cable or satellite TV or buy a TV set with a digital tuner to make sure their TV sets don't go dark next month.
The converter box coupon program is open to all but was created to help consumers who rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast TV signals, including many in minority and low-income communities.
Kerger said she's especially concerned that children in less-affluent homes that rely on free television might lose access to PBS educational shows for kids, which include "Sesame Street" and "Arthur."
Under the program, consumers can request up to two $40 coupons per household to help pay for the converter boxes, which can translate digital signals from the airwaves into analog ones and generally cost between $40 and $80.
On Monday, the Consumer Department said that applicants for the coupons are going on a waiting list and may not receive their vouchers before the switchover. The NTIA created the list on Sunday after hitting a $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress.
The agency will send out coupons to those on the list only as unredeemed coupons currently in circulation expire, freeing up more money for the program. The waiting list has requests already for more than 100,000 coupons.
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