Some Markets Pull Plug on Analog TV

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Federal Communications Commission said it received more than 28,000 calls Tuesday as some broadcasters moved to shut off their analog television signals early despite worries that many viewers are still unprepared for the switch to digital.

FCC officials said 421 broadcasters in mostly smaller markets shut off analog signals at midnight on Tuesday. By 11 a.m. yesterday, the FCC had received 6,750 calls from viewers needing help setting up converter boxes to receive signals or scanning for the new digital channels. Since the transition took effect in the early morning hours, the agency was expecting far more calls throughout the week.

Although Congress postponed the nationwide transition from Tuesday to June 12, stations were allowed to make the switch early with FCC approval. Last week, nearly 500 stations said they planned to change to digital broadcasts on the original date. The FCC allowed most to make the switch, but told 43 stations that they could not yet shut off analog signals, largely to ensure that at least one major commercial station continued to air public safety information and local news alerts for consumers who do not have digital-enabled televisions.

Including the stations that made the transition earlier, 641 stations, or more than one-third of the country's full-power stations, have made the switch to all-digital programming.

Washington-area stations plan to keep analog signals on the air until June 12. Two Baltimore stations -- Fox affiliate WBFF and CW affiliate WNUV -- turned off analog signals early.

More than 5 million U.S. households, or 4.4 percent of homes, cannot receive digital broadcasts, Nielsen Co. said yesterday. Consumers with analog televisions that rely on antennas to receive over-the-air broadcasts will need to install a converter box to continue to receive broadcasts after the switch. Digital television sets equipped with digital tuners will be able to receive the broadcasts, as will subscribers to cable and satellite services.

Many stations that switched early said they did so for financial reasons.

"Local and regional broadcasters have been losing ad revenue, and it's cutting into their budgets. Trying to broadcast a digital and analog signal simultaneously is very expensive for them," said Jayant Dasari, a research analyst at Parks Associates, a market research firm in Dallas.

The FCC said it saw a 37 percent jump in calls to its help line, 1-888-CALL-FCC, between Monday and Tuesday. Many were from consumers who were unaware that they should run the "scan" function on their digital televisions or converter boxes to receive a station that changed its digital channel after the transition.

AARP also set up a help line to field questions. Elderly viewers are considered a group most at-risk of losing access to broadcasts.

AARP Chief Communications Officer Kevin Donnellan said about 1,100 viewers had called by 4 p.m. yesterday, and he expected a spike of calls when prime-time shows began. Some callers had questions about obtaining a $40 government-sponsored coupon to help offset the cost of converter boxes.

A waiting list contains more than 4.2 million requests for converter boxes after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration hit its funding ceiling early last month. The stimulus package has funding to help clear the backlog of requests within the next few weeks, according to the NTIA.

Many stations that made the switch early will continue to air an analog signal with instructions on how to make the transition.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company