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Flipping digital switch could turn off TV for millions

LOS ANGELES - Politicians are lining up to delay the forced change next month in the way Americans get their television, but no matter when it comes, millions of TV sets across the nation will go black - well, fuzzy gray.

LOS ANGELES - Politicians are lining up to delay the forced change next month in the way Americans get their television, but no matter when it comes, millions of TV sets across the nation will go black - well, fuzzy gray.

Amid accusations that the federal government has mismanaged the change, a key congressman and the cochair of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team have pushed to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital transmission.

The Obama cochair, John Podesta, called government funding to help consumers make the change "woefully inadequate," and wrote to key Senate and House members: "I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated cutoff date."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), considered the most influential congressman on TV matters, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued statements supporting a delay.

As of mid-December, nearly 100,000 homes in the Philadelphia region had no televisions capable of receiving digital signals, according to the Nielsen Co.

Whenever the switch comes, every analog TV without a cable or satellite hookup will be obsolete. Viewers who have not installed converter boxes on them, either because they didn't understand the need, couldn't afford the equipment, or didn't really care enough to upgrade, will be in the dark.

"Currently, 99 percent of American households have television," said John Walsh, PBS senior vice president of programming, in an interview at the Television Critics Association winter meeting here. "Are TV households in the U.S. now going to be 95 percent? Ninety-seven percent?"

The good news in all of this is that the percentage of readiness is high. The Nielsen Co. estimated that, as of mid-December, 93 percent of TV households had at least one set that could receive the digital signal. The bad news is that the raw numbers are also high. The remaining 7 percent represents 7.9 million households. Walsh said as many as 4.5 million households could lose television when the transfer came.

His speculation did not include those who will receive fewer channels. "Just because of the nature of digital versus analog," Walsh said, "someone who is on the wrong side of a ridge or something like that may suddenly not be able to get a station that they always used to get analog."

People who now receive a weak but watchable signal may get nothing at all. Some experts say Hunterdon County, N.J., for instance, whose center is 55 miles from midtown Manhattan and 60 miles from Philadelphia's City Hall, could receive no major-network over-the-air signals.

"It's messy," Bill Weber, a vice president at WHYY, said in Philadelphia on Thursday. "There is still a lot of confusion and a lot of calls."

It is important to note that those with cable or satellite hookups - about 87 percent of the TV audience - needn't worry. "Many people are answering this question by getting cable for the first time," Walsh said. "This is the thing that has tipped them over."

He pointed out that most cable operators offer an option - "call it


or something like that" - that's cheaper than the most basic tier listed in their pamphlets.

"It gets you your broadcast channels and a handful of others, and that will satisfy your transition needs," Walsh said. "It's typically not advertised, but if you ask, you can get it."

Sen. Bernard Sanders (I., Vt.) last week introduced a bill that would require cable and satellite operators to provide such service for $10 a month to anyone who lost channels because of the transition. (Comcast said in October that it was offering a year of basic cable for $10 a month.)

Like the changeover delay, which requires approval by Congress, Sanders' bill likely will face the same opposition from Republicans and lobby groups such as the National Association of Broadcasters, which argues that changing the deadline would be costly and that there will always be people unprepared for the change.

People in Sanders' hilly, rural state are among the most likely to get diminished reception. He has also proposed legislation for a program to help people pay for new antennas that could ameliorate their problem.

Converter boxes cost $50 to $80. A government program that issued $40 coupons (up to two per household) to cushion those costs has degenerated into chaos. On Monday, the Commerce Department announced that it had suspended issuing coupons. People requesting them are being put on a waiting list until money from previously issued coupons that expired after 90 days is recycled back into the $1.3 billion program, the government said.

Between Monday and Thursday, the waiting list grew to 950,000, government spokesman Todd Sedmak said. The number is projected to rise to as high as five million by Feb. 17.

During the last year, 19 million coupons were redeemed at stores. About 13 million expired - in many cases, Walsh said, because stores did not yet have boxes to sell.

Another way to get the digital signal is to buy a digital TV, and manufacturers have been frantically producing sets to meet what they saw as a coming demand. In the uncertain economy, however, sales have lagged.

"At holiday time, you were seeing LCD flat-screens for about half of what they cost a year ago," Walsh said.

The Philadelphia region, which is well-saturated by Comcast, ranks sixth among the best-prepared markets for the changeover. About 96,000 households of 2.95 million are completely unprepared, Nielsen reported. Houston is the worst-prepared major city.

Perhaps because TV is more important to older viewers, households headed by people older than 55 are more prepared (95 percent) than those led by people younger than 35 (90 percent).

PBS president Paula Kerger and others are worried about another effect of the transition: Children may get left behind.

Homes have three TVs on average, and typically "two are connected to cable," said Anne Elliott, who is tracking the transition for Nielsen. "One, an old analog set that we find typically is in a child's bedroom, is not connected to cable, is not digital, and does not have a converter box."

Kerger told the critics: "I'm particularly concerned about the impact of children that rely on our programs, particularly children in lower-income households, that may lose the opportunity to watch programs that are not only entertaining for them but educational."

Some see a silver lining in the bedroom-TV turnoff. "Maybe the children will have to come out of their rooms," Elliott said, "and talk with their parents about what to watch on TV."