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Broadcasters Prepare for DTV Transition

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009; 3:12 PM

The switch is on.

Broadcasters across the nation have begun the final push to turn off the analog signals they've been using for more than six decades and move to all-digital programming.

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Viewers who have older analog TVs and have been watching free over-the-air signals with rabbit-ear antennas will need converter boxes to translate the digital signals back to analog to continue watching on those sets.

Every household can order up to two $40 coupons from the National Telecommunications and Information Association to offset the cost of converter boxes, which typically cost $50 to $80. The coupons take about 10 days to arrive.

NTIA officials said nearly 320,000 people had requested coupons yesterday, the 10th-highest coupon request day since the start of the program in February 2008.

Consumers also might be able to find discounted converter boxes on Web sites such as eBay or Craigslist.

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

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.

If you have a digital TV set that you bought in the past two years, you'll be able to receive the digital channels.

Using the "scan" function on your TV or converter box will be crucial during this transition. Every time you adjust your antenna, or plug in a new one, you'll need to rescan for channels to make sure you're receiving all the available channels. Rescan every week or so in order to get the best reception while TV stations settle into their new digital airwaves.

If you're using a converter box, be sure your TV set is tuned in to channel 3. This is the only way you'll be able to get a picture. If you're having reception problems, point your antenna toward a window, in the direction of the station's broadcast towers. In this region, that means you should point your antennas toward Northwest Washington.

In Washington, the CBS and ABC affiliates planned to shut off their signals this morning, while the rest plan to make the switch between noon and midnight.

Reception still might tricky.

Many viewers will find improved reception with digital signals, but some might 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 might 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.

Plus, some stations' coverage areas will change. Check the coverage maps on www.dtv.gov to find out what signals you should be able to receive in your Zip code.

For questions about technical issues, converter box coupons or anything else regarding the digital transition, call 888-CALL-FCC. The Federal Communications Commission has 4,000 agents working around the clock to answer your questions.

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