Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Steady stream of questions" as stations switch to DTV

More than 400 U.S. stations turned off their analog TV broadcasts Tuesday, and station managers say their phones are "ringing off the hook" with viewers confused by the early switch; that said, many admit they knew it was coming.

Variety reports that while most U.S. viewers were ready for the switch (indeed, a recent Nielsen survey found that more than 95 percent of viewers were ready for the analog TV shutoff), stations that made the switch Tuesday were inundated with "a steady stream of questions from "frustrated callers" who "wondered how to get coupons for [DTV] converter boxes … or how to get the devices working."

Now, hold on—didn't Congress vote to delay the DTV transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12? It sure did, but hundreds of stations lobbied the FCC to make the switch on Tuesday, the original analog TV shutoff date. (Only those with older, analog TVs and over-the-air antennas will be affected by the switch.)

As Engadget HD reports, a total of 421 stations turned off their analog TV transmissions on Tuesday, joining more than 200 others that had already made the switch. While the FCC initially denied the requests of more than 100 stations seeking to jump the June 12 deadline, 53 later got the go-ahead (according to Engadget HD).

Although the vast majority of TV markets in the U.S. still have most of their stations broadcasting in both analog and digital, a few areas—notably San Diego and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Madison, Wisc.; Sioux City, Iowa; Wavo, Texas; Scranton, Penn.; and large swaths of Rhode Island and Vermont—saw most or all of their major stations make the DTV switch on Tuesday, according to Variety.

Phones at those stations were "ringing off the hook" Tuesday, with one Providence, R.I. volunteer telling Variety that he had to explain to "agitated" viewers that "the digital switch is not something we're doing to extort them of money."

Other viewers sheepishly admitted that they'd known about the switch all along, with an exec for a Scranton PBS station noting: "Everybody admits that it's their fault … some people seemed to be mad at themselves for not doing something sooner" (this from the Variety story).

Indeed—and with many stations now only broadcasting bare-bones, "nite-lite" analog crawls telling viewers how to get DTV converter boxes, I'm sure many analog TV viewers have been jolted out of their DTV denial.

Meanwhile, President Obama's just-passed stimulus package is set to give the stalled DTV converter box coupon program a much-needed kick in the pants.

Engadget HD notes that once $650 million from the stimulus package flows into the $1.5 billion program (which provides two $40 coupons per households for the $50-$60 DTV converter boxes), the backlog of four million applications should be cleared within two weeks.

So yes—the DTV transition (which has been in the making for 10 years now, and will make way for new, 4G wireless technologies and improved transmissions for rescue workers) couldn't be more of a mess, but at least we're making some headway. Now let's hope that the new, June 12 deadline stays put.

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