DTV Storm Coming?

As a meteorologist and storm expert who flies into hurricanes, Paul Flaherty knows how important it is to prepare for a disaster.

But as he looked over some of the emergency supplies in his closet a couple of weeks ago, he realized that one important item on his checklist is going to be useless in the next hurricane: his portable analog television.

It's one of the potential problems for people living in a hurricane zone, or any potential disaster area, as television stations make the government-mandated switch from traditional analog broadcasts to ones that are all digital.

When the power goes out in a hurricane, untold thousands of residents will find that their battery-powered analog TVs, which provide vital information including where a storm is headed and when the worst of it has passed, will no longer be compatible with the digital broadcasts.

"I don't think anybody has really thought about an emergency situation like a hurricane, where you're going to lose that," said Flaherty, a flight director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aircraft Operations Center in Tampa, Fla.

The digital TV transition deadline was originally set for Feb. 17 but has now been delayed until June 12, giving residents in hurricane zones more time to prepare.

But even then, technology watchers say consumers may not want to upgrade because of the price. There are few portable digital TV choices on the market, costing $200 to $300, compared with around $20 for a portable analog set. Editor-At-Large Brian Cooley points out that new industry standards for portable DTV transmission may not be finalized until late this year, and that has kept major manufacturers from jumping into the portable DTV market, for now.

"I expect to see a flood of them late this year and really on the market in 2010," Cooley said.

Government Response

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, say they are tracking the portable TV issue and working with the Federal Communications Commission to spread the word about the DTV conversion.

FEMA has been talking to its regional offices around the country and has plans to update its Web site and emergency supply checklists to remind people that their portable analog TVs may not be reliable during a disaster, said spokesperson Ley York.

The agency is also turning to nontraditional social media, even setting up a Twitter account to send out emergency updates on cell phones and e-mail.

"We encourage everyone to sign up," York said.

How Important Is TV?

Some argue that while television is an important source of information as a storm approaches, it is not as important as radio, phone or Internet access after the storm hits.

Hurricane researcher Hugh Willoughby has lived in Florida since 1974 and has been through more hurricanes than he can remember.

He said television is especially effective at getting people to prepare for approaching storms, noting that hurricane fatalities dropped significantly after satellite animations began appearing on screens in the early 1970s.

"You see this spinning white thing coming at you in an animation, and it gets to be really, really real," said Willoughby, a research professor at Florida International University in Miami. "It's partly the visual image of the storm. And partly the visual image of a person on TV that people trust. That's where television is really valuable."

But Willoughby, who owns two portable analog televisions, downplays the importance of being able to watch them after a storm hits.

"Television is a nice-to-have sort of thing," he said. "What you really need is a radio to know where to get water, and things like that."

Raising Awareness

The FCC is also aware of the portable TV issue and maintains a Web site to answer frequently asked questions.

Broadcasters said they would release new public service announcements to alert viewers to the new deadline, although it is not clear whether the announcements will also remind viewers about their portable analog televisions.

Groups who fought for the June delay are using the extra time to get the transition message out to the roughly 21 million people who still rely on "over the air" broadcasts.

"Unfortunately, there are still a lot of community members who are unaware of this transition," said Tania Maria Rosario, who is helping to raise awareness of the DTV switchover for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

"And we want to make sure that no one is cut off."