Ill-prepared for digital transition

The Baltimore Sun

It would have been a snowy day in hell for more than 6.5 million households across America if analog television broadcasts ended, as planned, next Tuesday.

If they turned on their analog TVs, expecting to tune into Deal or No Deal or the local news using an old-fashioned antenna, they would have gotten a screen full of snow. These were all the households either unaware of, or unprepared for, the federally mandated conversion to all-digital signals.

Congress, acknowledging the ill-preparedness, has now delayed the transition to June 12, when all television stations really, really, really must shut down their analog signals and Americans must be ready for it.

Or else ... more snow.

If you have an HDTV with a digital tuner or subscribe to cable or satellite television service, this does not apply. In the Baltimore TV market, almost 80 percent of households are fully prepared for the digital transition. Less than 4 percent are completely unprepared, according to the Nielsen Co.

The digital transition state of emergency applies only to those with analog TV sets who receive local, over-the-air broadcasts exclusively with an antenna. To receive signals in the post-analog era, you'll need a converter box.

To help fund the conversion, Congress set up a program that allowed every household two $40 coupons that would drop the final converter box price to about $20 each (good idea). Then it put a 90-day time limit on the coupons (bad idea). Through January, more than 14 million of the 47 million mailed coupons had expired, tying up millions of dollars in useless plastic rebates.

As the Feb. 17 deadline approached, the coupon waiting list surpassed 3 million. President Barack Obama, as part of his economic stimulus package, set aside $650 million to restock the program.

Almost 20 million households get their TV programming exclusively with an antenna. Of that 20 million, 41.5 percent are Spanish-speaking homes and 27.5 African-American, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

It's not a stretch to suggest that many of these are low-income households that were not adequately informed about the digital transition or could not afford a converter box. The coupon program was open to everyone - from Madonna to an unemployed autoworker to a day laborer making minimum wage. Low-income households dependent on over-the-air signals should have received priority.

But that won't happen, even now.

So for those still reliant on an analog TV and an antenna, here's what you need to know:

How to receive digital signals: Get either a converter box; a television, preferably an HDTV, with a digital tuner (look for a digital "ATSC" tuner instead of an analog NTSC tuner); or cable or satellite service, or a similar pay service, such as Verizon's FiOS or AT&T;'s U-Verse.

Your analog TV is not worthless without a converter box: It will still work with your VCR, DVD or video-game console.

It's not too late to get a converter coupon: Go to dtv2009.gov or call 888-388-2009. And do it now: Some stations have dropped analog transmissions already, with many more promising to beat the new June 12 deadline.

You don't need a special "HDTV" antenna: A rabbit-ears antenna is fine to start, but make sure it includes a UHF antenna so you'll get channels 14 and up, where many digital channels reside.

Digital cable vs. digital television: Digital cable is the way your local cable provider delivers its signals. Switching to digital cable does not mean you've switched to HDTV. Digital television refers to the new, all-digital signals.

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