The Switch to Digital TV is Today

June 12, 2009 (New York Times) Across the United States today, television stations will power down the analog signals that have sent TV shows into homes for six decades.

Friday represents the deadline for the country’s transition to fully digital television broadcasting. Throughout the day, TV stations are switching off analog and in many cases moving to new positions on the channel dial.

Some stations are making the switch early on Friday, timed to their morning newscasts, so that they can field phone calls from confused viewers during normal work hours. Other stations are waiting until the end of the day, sometimes at 11:59 p.m. The staggered timing will amount to a rolling transition across the country.

On Friday morning, some stations were already indicating that some viewers had been caught off-guard. WAFB, the CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge, switched at 7 a.m. Central time, and an hour later the station reported on Twitter that its call center was “going crazy.”

“Believe it or not, a lot of people saying they didn’t know anything about the switch,” the station said.

KKTV in Colorado Springs made the switch at 7 a.m. Mountain time with a special sign-off: a rendition of the National Anthem by a local vocal ensemble. “Our newsroom is about to get FULL,” wrote Stacia Naquin, a KKTV morning anchor, on Twitter. “We have lots of extra team members coming in for the digital switch.”

Some other stations reported few calls after making the switch in the morning. A reporter at KELO in South Dakota said the station had received no phone calls yet. “Oddly quiet,” he wrote on Twitter. Similarly, a producer at WTHR in Indianapolis said that station was getting “only a few phone calls from people having trouble with switchover.”

According to Nielsen, about 2.8 million homes are completely unready for the transition, despite an onslaught of TV ads about the impending change. Another 9.5 million homes are partially unready, meaning that they may have upgraded some of their TV sets, but not all of them. “Younger, African American and Hispanic homes are disproportionately unready, while the elderly are the most ready,” TVNewsDay reports.

These viewers may be surprised on Friday to find their TV sets unable to pick up signals. But most of the rest of the country is unlikely to notice the change. Cable and satellite customers are automatically prepared because they do not rely on over-the-air signals.

Over-the-air homes either need to purchase a digital converter box (subsidized by the government) or a TV set with an internal digital tuner. The viewers may also need to adjust their antenna or purchase a new antenna. Electronics stores may be busy this weekend.

“In any change this big, there are going to be disruptions,” Michael Copps, the Federal Communications Commission’s acting chairman, said in a statement. “We are trying our best to provide people, especially those who are most at-risk, with the help they need to make the switch as smoothly as possible. And we’re going to keep offering it after June 12, so people should call us at 1-888-CALL-FCC.”

Digital broadcasting brings with it higher-quality pictures and sound and new channels for viewers who rely on over-the-air signals. The newly available analog spectrum will be used for advanced wireless services and emergency communications, the FCC says.

The government had intended for stations to end analog broadcasting in February, but the Obama administration pushed the Congress to approve a four-month delay. Officials have spent more than $2 billion to ease the transition.

A sizable minority of the roughly 1,800 full-power TV stations in the United States have already turned analog off. For the others, Friday is a historic day.

“Even after Friday, low-power analog stations and rural relay stations known as ‘translators’ will still be available in some areas,” the Associated Press reports. “And about 100 full-power stations will keep an analog ‘night light’ on for a few weeks, informing viewers of the need to switch to digital reception.”

As stations transition to digital, viewers may notice some weak signals. For example, WNIN, the PBS affiliate in Evansville, Indiana, said it was running its digital signal on only 50 percent power on Friday morning. “Please bear with us as we finishing the transition,” the station said.

Viewers are also being reminded to re-scan their television channels, because some stations are moving to new dial positions.

“So here’s hoping you don’t lose your picture,” wrote Suzanne Geha, an anchor at WOOD in Grand Rapids, Michigan. WOOD broadcast a special report just before 10 a.m. Eastern explaining the analog shut-off, with a reporter stationed at one of its transmission towers.

Ms. Geha wrote, “Here’s hoping you start enjoying a much richer, sharper view from your TV screen.”

For detailed information about the transition, visit DTV.gov.

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