Television sets throughout Maryland were talking to their owners last night, letting them know either that everything was in place for February's digital conversion, or that the time had come to move their sets into the 21st century.
At 5:45 last night, TV viewers watching Maryland's broadcast stations - that is, stations that can be picked up without a cable or satellite hook-up - saw one of two things. If the broadcasts they were watching proceeded uninterrupted, then all's right with their TV world. But those that found themselves staring at a screen displaying the words, "You are getting this message because..." - their TV sets are in danger of becoming useless after Feb. 17.
Once the digital transition is made, many older TV sets - those equipped only to receive an analog signal - will become instantly obsolete unless they are attached to a converter box, available at many electronics and department stores for $40 to $70. Government-issued coupons, good for a $40 discount on the boxes, are available by going to dtv2009.gov or by calling 888-DTV-2009.
TV viewers who receive programming through satellite or cable hook-ups will not be affected by the transition. And many new television sets were built ready to receive the digital signal.
Viewers who saw the message last night were given a number to call for information, 877-DTV-5353, that put them in touch with a New York-based automated phone bank able to answer questions about the conversion. Robert Miller, director of technical projects for NBC Universal, which set up the phone bank, said he wouldn't have information on the number of callers for a few days. But similar tests in other markets, he said, have produced consistent results.
Some 70 percent of the callers, he says, are looking for coupons. Another 14 percent have questions concerning cable or satellite hook-ups.
And the calls, he says, just keep on coming. "We had a test in Chicago on Nov. 12," he said, "and we're still getting 30, 40, 50 calls a day."
A second test for Maryland TV stations is set for Jan. 15.
Nationally, figures from The Nielsen Company show that 7.4 percent of U.S. homes are not prepared for the conversion, while 10.3 percent are partially prepared.
Even homes with cable or satellite hook-ups may not be as ready as they think, warns Jay Newman, president and general manager of WJZ, Channel 13. Without a hook-up or a converter box, second sets scattered throughout the house in playrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and elsewhere will go blank come Feb. 17.
Digital broadcasting will offer television audiences several advantages over traditional analog broadcasts. For example, programs can be viewed in high definition, which offers a clearer, brighter picture and improved sound, provided the TV set is HD compatible. Also, stations broadcasting in digital can offer additional channels, frequently used for 24-hour weather broadcasts and expanded local programming.