This Friday's digital-TV transition brought a team of Americorps volunteers to the home of 88-year-old Tony Maiorana of South Philadelphia, who for two months couldn't do anything with the snowy TV picture on the set in the kitchen.
Maiorana's problem was quickly solved. An Americorps volunteer switched the TV to channel 3 from channel 4 and then flipped on the power to the VCR. Presto. Time spent on the fix: about 20 seconds.
"They tried to walk me through it on the phone, and I couldn't even crawl," said a good-humored Maiorana. "I don't know how you did it. I'm confused. But it works," he told the four young people, two men and two women, on Thursday.
The nation's over-the-air TV broadcasters will extinguish their age-old analog transmissions on Friday to complete the long-awaited switch to digital broadcasting. The upgrade improves picture quality on free TV and could boost the financially weakened industry.
This digital-TV conversion was originally scheduled for Feb. 17, but it was delayed by Congress and the Obama administration because of fears that many millions of people, mostly elderly, poor, or minority, would lose free-TV reception because they were unprepared.
The TV industry and the federal government have used the last several months to educate the public about the switch, to mail millions of coupons for converter boxes to Americans, and to enlist Americorps volunteers and local fire departments to help people hook the converter boxes into TVs.
U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the transition with $2.3 billion, mostly through $40 coupons for digital converter boxes. Each household is eligible for two.
But the Nielsen Co., which measures audiences and trends in TV usage, estimates that about three million households nationwide - about one in five rabbit-ear TV viewers - could lose their TV reception when the switch takes place Friday. That includes 58,000 households in the Philadelphia area. These people have not bought a digital-converter box, purchased a digital TV, or enrolled in a pay-TV service.
Nielsen and others say 14.5 million households nationally receive TV entertainment and news over the air. That number has dropped because of cable TV and satellite penetration. Confusion related to the over-the-air digital conversion could accelerate the shift to pay TV, experts say.
If a person has not obtained a coupon for a digital converter box by now and he or she cannot go a day without TV, government officials recommend buying a digital TV or a digital-converter box before Friday.
It takes about 10 business days to get a coupon for a digital-converter box from the government, so a coupon ordered now would arrive after the switch. "If they didn't get one yet, they are probably not going to get one before June 12," said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield.
People can order converter coupons through www.dtv2009.gov or by calling 1-888-388-2009.
The government approved 31.7 million households for 58 million coupons through late May. Consumers have redeemed almost 30 million coupons at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and other stores in the last year.
The boxes can confound people such as Maiorana who are not facile with electronics or are befuddled by multiple TV remotes. Because his digital-converter box was hooked through the VCR, the VCR had to be on to get power to the converter box. The converter box said it would operate on Channel 3 or 4, but a button on the back of the box had to correspond to the channel the user wanted to use. "Everything was fine before the boxes came along," Maiorana sighed.
While the conversion to digital has frustrated some people, the transition could enrich the TV-viewing experience by allowing over-the-air stations to transmit in high definition and offer more than one channel in their allotted spectrum.
Some TV stations also are using the digital conversion to alter their broadcast coverage area. WPPX-TV of Delaware, Channel 61, is expanding into the Philadelphia market while it trims coverage south of Wilmington.
Joseph Koker, president of the television-station group for Ion Media Networks Inc., which owns the independent WPPX, said the Wilmington station expanded its coverage areas in the Philadelphia TV market to 6.6 million people from 5.1 million people under the analog service. About 220,000 viewers will lose WPPX south of Wilmington in the northward shift.
Other markets where Ion Media Networks, which filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors in May, also boosted its over-the-air TV coverage with the digital transition were Tampa, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Nashville; Jacksonville, Fla.; and San Francisco, Koker said.
"We get more centralized, and we better serve the market," Koker said. WPPX offers entertainment and syndicated shows. In the fall, Ion will air Durham County, a Canadian television drama.
The four network-affiliated over-the-air stations in Philadelphia - CBS3, NBC10, Fox29, 6ABC - preserved their over-the-air coverage area in Philadelphia and expanded on the suburban fringes, particularly in New Jersey, FCC reception maps show.