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Digital TV Ready to Rule the Tube, Leaving Some Viewers in the Dark

AmeriCorps volunteer Stanley Murzyn helps install digital TV converters for a D.C. resident. By Saturday, older analog sets that rely on rabbit-ear antennas will need a converter box to continue to receive programming.
AmeriCorps volunteer Stanley Murzyn helps install digital TV converters for a D.C. resident. By Saturday, older analog sets that rely on rabbit-ear antennas will need a converter box to continue to receive programming. (Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Almost 3 million U.S. homes -- 60,000 households in the Washington area alone -- could wake up Saturday to a blank TV screen.

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By midnight tomorrow, all of the nation's full-powered TV stations will shut off the analog signals that brought the iconic shows "I Love Lucy" and the "Cosby Show" to millions of living rooms, marking the biggest change in television viewing since the advent of Technicolor. In their place, broadcasters will air a new breed of digital broadcasts intended to bring crisper pictures and sound to shows like "American Idol."

At the end of this long-awaited and troubled transition, the government will have made $20 billion from the sale of the old

analog airwaves, the telecommunications industry will be able to offer brand-new, high-speed wireless services, and public-safety officials will get access to airwaves for a new nationwide communications network.

But people have been left to deal with some unsatisfactory results of the poorly managed, government-mandated transition. The education campaign was uncoordinated, a federal program to help people pay for converter boxes ran out of money, and many were not informed that they might need additional equipment to receive TV service.

Those most at risk of losing programming -- seniors, non-English speakers, low-income viewers and rural residents -- are among the more than 14 million households that rely heavily on over-the-air signals to receive critical public-safety alerts, news and weather reports.

"The problems for those people will be much greater than the forecast," John Carey, a professor of communications and media management at Fordham University.

Older analog sets that rely on rabbit-ear antennas will need a converter box, which costs $50 to $80. TV sets with digital tuners will receive broadcasts, but viewers will need to adjust antennas and in some cases install more powerful ones.

For Maria Rubio, 67, of Langley Park, the TV has been a constant companion since her husband died two years ago. She watches five to six hours of television a day with the dial fixed on Spanish-language talk shows and telenovelas on Univision. She does not speak much English.

Rubio is worried that her pastime may disappear come Saturday. A neighbor's teenage son hooked up a converter box, which she bought with a government-sponsored coupon for a $40 discount, to her 16-year-old TV. But she may also need a new, stronger antenna for reception.

That's because digital signals do not travel as far or hold up to interference as well as analog. Analog signals will show a snowy picture for viewers on the edge of a station's coverage area. But with digital signals, even the smallest obstruction -- a tall tree in the yard or an airplane flying overhead -- can cause the picture to freeze and sometimes disappear altogether.

Rubio said she cannot afford to buy a new antenna. "We almost could not pay for that [converter] box," she said.


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