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 Craigslist.com 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.
"The emphasis now is on scanning and re-scanning converter boxes and telling consumers to adjust antennas," said Julius Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering Technology at the Federal Communications Commission, during an agency meeting about the transition last week. He said viewers should make sure they are using an antenna that can receive both UHF and VHF signals and check the FCC's mapping tool at http://www.dtv.gov for signal coverage in their area.
"We're seeing a wide variation in the performance of different antennas," he said.
Many viewers will find improved reception with digital signals, but some may lose a few channels they used to receive. With analog signals, even viewers on the fringe of a station's coverage area were able to receive a snowy picture. Interference with the signals -- tall trees or bad weather -- would cause the screen to get snowier, but the picture would remain.
Digital signals, however, are more fickle. They don't travel as far, so viewers more than 40 miles away from a station's tower may not receive the signal at all. Digital signals are also more susceptible to interference such as an airplane flying by or a tall building standing between your house and the broadcast tower. Plus, even a small obstruction of the signal will cause the TV's picture to freeze, pixilate or disappear completely. The picture will either come in perfectly or not at all.
Michael J. Copps, acting chairman of the FCC, said he's having his own reception problems. When he upgraded his TV set in February, the picture was excellent. But now that the leaves have grown back on the trees surrounding his house, some stations don't come in as well.
"People will need to find the sweet spot for their antennas," said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, an industry trade group. "Don't put it in a highly trafficked area of your home. As with any new technology, it will take time to work out the reception and interference issues."
Finding that sweet spot can be tricky. Herb Wong, an electrical engineer for Northrop Grumman, took a day off work last week to help seniors in Fairfax County set up converter boxes and adjust antennas. In one home, he had to prop an antenna on an empty tissue box taped to the top of the TV to angle the antenna for the best reception. In another, he attached the antenna to a window flowerpot.
"I have to get creative," he said.
There is still some concern that many of those most at risk of losing TV -- elderly, disabled, low-income and non-English-speaking viewers -- will be left without a picture.
"We anticipate there will be a lot of seniors who come out of the woodwork when they realize their TVs go black," said Theresa Lambert, who leads the digital TV outreach efforts for the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. "No matter how much information is out there, it's not until those TVs go dark that you get their attention."