Digital Switch Takes Place Across U.S.

Many viewers still not prepared, TVs, converter boxes fly off shelves

As television stations across the country made the switch to digital, many North Texans rushed to local stores to get what they need to still receive television signals.

TV's and digital converter boxes were flying off the shelves Friday at the Best Buy store near Hulen Mall in Fort Worth.

"At the last minute, all of a sudden, we just had this huge rush," said Ian Gibson with Best Buy.

Marty Butorac of Fort Worth picked up two digital converter boxes Friday afternoon.

"My wife's got a little portable four-inch screen that she likes and she really wants it to still use it and we're going to see if the converter box works with the rabbit ears on it," Butorac said.

Newlyweds Joey and Amir Krummell bought a new TV on sale.

"We knew the TV in the bedroom wasn't going to work anyway, and here we are, with a great big TV in our basket," Joey Krummell said.

Gloria Pease, of Fort Worth, waited until the last minute to replace the TV in her dining room, the one she watches most.

"I guess I'm a procrastinator," she said.

KXAS NBC 5 made the switch at 11:59:15 a.m., when engineers replaced the network programming on the station's analog signal with a video explaining the switch to digital.

The educational video will be shown continuously for the next two weeks, when engineers will then pull the plug on the analog signal after more than 60 years.

Across the country, TV shows were replaced by the hiss of static in perhaps 1 million U.S. homes as stations ended their analog broadcasts and abandoned the transmission technology in use since the days of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Howdy Doody.

The vast majority of households that rely on antennas for their TV signals were prepared for the shutdown, but many people remained vexed by the challenge of setting up digital reception.

Any set hooked up to cable or a satellite dish is unaffected by the end of analog broadcasts, but around 17 million U.S. households rely on antennas. Nielsen Co. said poor and minority households were less likely to be prepared for Friday's analog shutdown, as were households consisting of people younger than 35.

TV stations were free to choose when in the day to cut their signals, and many were holding off until late at night. That means the full effect of the shutdown will not be apparent until this weekend.

TV stations, electronics stores and the government said most of the calls they received Friday were from people who had converter boxes, but needed help setting them up.

The Commerce Department reported a last-minute rush for the $40 converter box coupons: It received 319,990 requests Thursday. That's nearly four times the daily average for the past month. In all, the government has mailed coupons for almost 60 million converter boxes. The limit is two coupons per household.

The government is accepting coupon requests and offering technical support at 1-888-CALL-FCC. Federal Communications Commission spokesman Mark Wigfield said that by 2 p.m. Friday, the agency had received 122,389 calls, nearly four times as many as on Thursday, the busiest day so far.

Among several confusing elements to the transition, many stations were moving to new frequencies Friday. That means that even digital TV sets and older sets hooked up to converter boxes need to be set to "re-scan" the airwaves. New TVs and the converter boxes have menu options, accessible through their remote controls, to enable a re-scan.

Some people might also need new antennas, because digital signals travel differently than analog ones.

A weakly received analog channel might be viewable through some static, but channels broadcast in the digital language of ones and zeros are generally all or nothing. If they do not come in perfectly, they are blank or show a stuttering picture that breaks apart into blocks of color.

The shutdown of analog channels opens part of the airwaves for modern applications like wireless broadband and TV services for cell phones. The government reaped $19.6 billion last year by selling some of the freed-up frequencies, with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless the biggest buyers.

The shutdown was originally scheduled for Feb. 17, but the government's fund for converter box coupons ran out of money in early January, prompting the incoming Obama administration to push for a delay. The converter box program got additional funding in the national stimulus package.

Research firm SmithGeiger LLC said Thursday that about 2.2 million households were still unprepared as of last week. Sponsored by the broadcasters' association, it surveyed 948 households that relied on antennas and found that 1 in 8 did not have a digital TV or digital converter box.

Nielsen Co., which measures TV ratings from a wide panel of households, put the number of unready homes at 2.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the total television market, as of Sunday. In February, the number was 5.8 million.

Nearly half of the nation's 1,760 full-power TV stations had already cut their analog signals even before Friday, mostly in less populated areas.

Even after Friday, low-power analog stations and rural relay stations known as "translators" will still be available in some areas. And about 100 full-power stations will keep an analog "night light" on for a few weeks, informing viewers they should switch to digital reception.

The change also put a few stations off the air temporarily, making them available only through cable and satellite.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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