Your Antenna's Big Day

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

You've been bombarded with TV commercials about it for the past two years. Consumer advocates have fretted about it, broadcasters spent billions of dollars to get ready for it, and Congress got so riled up about it that they voted to delay it.

But on Friday , the big switch to digital television will finally happen. That means procrastinators have just five days to make sure their TV sets will be able to receive the new breed of over-the-air TV signals, which are promised to provide a sharper picture and more programs. And even diligent viewers who think they've been ready for months may have to make some adjustments so their TVs don't go dark.

Here's what's going on: Broadcasters are permanently turning off the analog signals they've been using for more than six decades and moving to all-digital programming. Why? Digital signals travel more efficiently, allowing broadcasters to air more channels with a higher-quality picture. The old analog airwaves will be repurposed for wireless communications networks for public safety officials. And companies such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless have bought the rights to use those airwaves to roll out new cellphone services for consumers.

The digital transition will most affect consumers who have older analog TVs and have been watching free over-the-air signals with rabbit-ear antennas. In order to keep working, those TVs will need converter boxes to translate the digital signals back to analog. Every household can order up to two $40 coupons to offset the cost of converter boxes, which typically cost $50 to $80. The coupons take about 10 days to arrive, so if you haven't yet ordered one, you probably won't receive it in time for Friday's switch. Still, some communities are holding coupon exchanges so people with extra coupons can give them to those who need them. And some people who bought discounted converter boxes with the coupons put them up for sale on eBay or after realizing they didn't need them.

If you have a digital TV set that you bought in the past two years, you'll be able to receive the digital channels. Cable and satellite subscribers should not be affected by the change, but they should check with providers. Some cable companies are going through their own digital upgrades, which means channel lineups could change.

The switch was supposed to take place in February, but lawmakers worried that too many consumers were not prepared and would lose television service. In addition, a budget crunch at the Commerce Department caused a large backlog of requests for converter-box coupons. Prompted by the Obama administration, Congress voted to delay the transition by four months, to June 12, and $650 million in stimulus funds was allocated to the preparation efforts.

The Commerce Department said there are enough coupons to meet consumer demand. Coupons are available through the end of July.

About 3.1 million homes, or 2.7 percent of U.S. households, are still not ready for the transition, Nielsen Co. said last month, down from 6 million in late January. The National Association of Broadcasters said its survey shows that 82 percent of homes that rely on over-the-air signals are fully ready.

Groups that have been leading the education efforts, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the extra time has paid off. Now that just about every TV watcher is aware that the switch is coming, federal officials and other outreach groups are turning their attention to potential reception problems.

Every consumer using a converter box or a digital TV set will need to use the "scan" or "auto tune" function every few weeks to pick up every available channel. Some stations are moving to a different frequency as part of the transition.

Stations will be shutting off their analog signals throughout the day on Friday. In Washington, the CBS and ABC affiliates plan to shut off their signals in the morning, while the rest plan to make the switch between noon and midnight.

Most viewers will need to adjust their antennas to receive digital signals. Experiment with your antenna's location, and point it toward a window in the direction of the broadcast towers. (Most of the towers for local stations are in Northwest Washington.) If you still have spotty reception, you'll probably need to upgrade to a more powerful antenna, perhaps even a rooftop unit.

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