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Shoppers are snapping up converter boxes

Local stores are having a tough time keeping digital TV converter boxes on the shelves, and the first government coupons issued are about to expire.

With just over 250 days left until the digital switchover at midnight Feb. 17, 2009, people should start shopping now.

“We’re having trouble keeping them in stock,” said Tyler Johnson, a salesman at Best Buy. “Everyone in town is.”

The Janesville Gazette visited four major retailers earlier this week, and only one had any boxes in stock—a shipment that had arrived just a few days before.

Perhaps it’s because of all the commercials airing about the analog-to-digital transition over the last few months.

Johnson said the TV converter boxes and the digital switchover are the No. 1 things customers ask him about.

Perhaps the rush also is because some of the first coupons issued expire in a matter of days.

The coupons—good for $40 off the purchase of a converter box—expire 90 days after they are mailed to consumers.

But consumers shouldn’t just buy the first box on the shelf because it might not have “pass-through,” a feature on some boxes that allows viewers to catch both the new digital signals and the old analog signals without having to disconnect the box when changing channels.

Johnson said most people around here probably won’t need “pass-through” because local stations out of Madison, Milwaukee and Rockford are among those required to make the switch to digital. It’s the low-powered stations, such as those found in the northern part of the state, that don’t have to switch next year, he said.

Other features, such as a digital video recorder or a “smart antenna” that helps pull in distant signals, are available on some converter boxes but at a higher price.

David Masotti, owner of TEAM Electronics, said stores should stock the boxes with the most basic features.

“Places that want to sell (converter boxes) should stock the $49 or $59 ones, not the $100 ones,” he said.

The more expensive, souped-up boxes aren’t necessary for the average household, Masotti said.

Some local retailers offer a couple boxes to choose from, but most stock just one.

Here’s what’s available in Janesville:

-- Best Buy: Insignia brand box for $59.99

-- Sears: Magnavox brand box for $49.99

-- Target: Venturer brand box for $47.99 and GE brand box $54.99

-- TEAM Electronics: Tivax brand box for $59.99

-- Wal-Mart: Magnavox brand box for $49.87 and RCA brand box for $49.87

Johnson said Best Buy receives a shipment of converter boxes about every week, but Masotti said he orders boxes on an as-needed basis.

“We’re a smaller retailer,” he said. “The kind of customer that comes to us for (converter boxes) is the one who might need some help.”

Masotti said TEAM probably has sold about 12 boxes in the last two weeks.

“The big-box stores sell these at 12 an hour,” he said.

JUST THE FACTS

What’s happening? The government is requiring most TV stations to stop broadcasting analog signals and switch to digital by Feb. 18, 2009. DTV provides better quality picture and sound and allows stations to broadcast multiple program choices over what used to be just one channel.

How do I know if I need a converter box? If you receive your TV signal through an antenna, you need one. If you receive your TV signal via cable or satellite or already have a digital TV, you don’t need one.

How do I apply for the $40 coupon? Apply online at www.dtv2009.gov or call the 24-hour hotline toll-free at 1-888-388-2009. Each household can request up to two coupons. Coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed.

Where can I buy a converter box? Most national retailers, including Best Buy, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart, sell government-certified converter boxes. But some local electronics stores sell them, too. To locate a retailer nearby, go to www.dtv2009.gov.

How do I install the converter box? It’s easy. Plug your antenna into the converter box and then connect the box to the TV through the same connection your antenna once used. You’ll use the remote control that comes with the box to change channels.

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