Digital TV: Coming Now to a Set Near You

TV stations report calls from people confused by DTV switch.

June 12, 2009 — -- Turn on your television and if you see a picture, take that as a promising sign.

This was the day for the great transition to Digital TV -- 1,787 U.S. television stations sending DTV signals over the airwaves, and shutting down the analog transmitters they have used since television became a mass medium in the 1940s and '50s.

The Federal Communications Commission said the digital TV transition appeared to be going smoothly. But it and many broadcasters braced for a likely flood of calls over the weekend, as people realize they're having problems getting a signal.

The National Association of Broadcasters said late Friday afternoon that the number of calls for help from viewers to local TV stations has "generally fallen in line with the necessary level of viewer support stations had anticipated for the final day of the transition."

The association reported, from a survey completed last week, that of the 12.6 million households that use broadcast signals, 88 percent were all set, with new TV sets, antennae or set-top DTV converter boxes so they can watch the new, crisper TV transmissions. Another 1.75 million households, as of the survey's end, had not yet taken any action -- many of them apparently waiting until the last minute.

But then there were people such as Carl Huffman, a disabled Seattle aerospace worker who, with a day to go, still could not get one of the $40 converter boxes that were supposed to make the transition so simple.

"I depend on television for my information," he said, "and I'm not about to go out and buy a new TV. Even the box is an expense. I have my disability check, and that's all."

Huffman, 58, worked at the old aviation giant Martin Marietta, but became sick from a blood transfusion in 1988. It took a decade, he said, for doctors to figure out that the transfusion had given him AIDS.

When he tried to get one of the $40 coupons offered by the government to defray the cost of a converter box, he said, "It's like there was a brick wall set up."

The End of Rabbit Ears

Broadcasters say digital television will allow for higher-quality video and audio on television, a greater number of broadcast channels and more possibilities for transmission of data or programs to mobile devices. Many viewers have complained that digital broadcast signals do not travel as far as the analog signals they replace, and that they are easily cut off by the slightest interference -- even rain.

Surveys show that the number of people still unready for the transition has been cut in half since the transition was delayed from February. The Obama administration, with congressional help, put off the end of analog signals because, despite outreach efforts and a massive public-service campaign, it appeared likely that millions of Americans would turn on their TV sets and see nothing but snow.

"Ninety-five percent of the country will be ready, and that's pretty good," said Mark Lloyd of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an advocacy group that has been helping people through the transition. "We are, though, still concerned, especially about the poor, the elderly, those for whom English is not their first language, people who are disenfranchised."

D-Day: Digital TV Deadline

"It will be messy," said Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. "We are estimating three million households or so will be left behind." Government figures were more pessimistic than industry's about the number of unprepared viewers.

The Federal Communications Commission says about 11 percent of U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air TV signals; most of us use cable, satellite, fiber-optics or other services to get TV programs. The National Association of Broadcasters says the number of people affected by the transition is closer to a third of all Americans, as people may have several sets connected to cable service, but another upstairs or in the kitchen that still relies on old-fashioned rabbit ears.

Streaming Video

On the other hand, there are a growing number of people, like Ben and Katie Hallen of Washington, D.C., who have moved beyond the ups and downs of conventional broadcasting.

"We watch our TV over the Internet," said Ben Hallen, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith Business School. "The transition is happening, but it really doesn't affect us."

He and his wife, who live in Washington, D.C., found, a couple of years ago, that they were streaming programs on their laptops, getting movies from Netflix or Amazon, and using a Roku digital video player to transfer the streamed signal to their TV set.

"We're watching what we want to watch," he said. "For the weather, we just go online. For news, we read a lot of newspapers."

But the Hallens are at the other end of the country -- and the broadcasting spectrum -- from Carl Huffman.

He finally got help from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to cut through the red tape -- and was planning, in a few hours, to pick up a converter box and a new digital antenna.

"My socializing is from my TV," Huffman said. "There is no option. I have to do this."