Tomorrow , Some will need this.... To Avoid This

The Baltimore Sun

Every Monday night, Janice Stephenson, a 68-year-old retired Baltimore social worker, climbs into bed to watch the Fox drama House on her small black TV set. The medical mystery series is her favorite show, but last night's episode might be her last for a while.

Starting at midnight tonight, hundreds of stations across the country - including Baltimore's Fox and CW affiliates - will broadcast only digital signals, dropping their analog transmissions despite efforts by Congress to delay the switch until June. While most have extended the deadline at the government's request, 368 stations have decided to stick to the original plan.

The move is expected to save each of the stations hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity costs, but millions of people who still have not purchased the equipment or services needed to receive digital TV signals - mostly elderly and lower-income viewers - will be unable to watch news broadcasts and popular shows like American Idol.

The Nielsen Co. estimated last month that more than 6 million homes were still analog only - an estimate most experts consider low. The percentage of analog homes in large urban areas like Baltimore could run as high as 20 percent.

"What did they expect people to do if they weren't ready?" Stephenson said. "This kind of seems unfair."

She had prepared to make the switch by signing up for cable service, but she put that on hold after she heard about the delay.

Most newer televisions equipped with digital tuners, as well as those connected to cable or satellite systems, should be unaffected by the changes. But people who depend on indoor or outdoor antennas for reception need to attach a converter box to their televisions. The boxes are available at most electronics and big-box stores for $40 to $80.

If Stephenson seems frustrated by the switch to a digital signal, she has good reason to be, analysts say. Instead of the clean, straightforward conversion that government officials envisioned for the country starting tomorrow, things started to unravel late last year when a government program to provide vouchers to defray the cost of converter boxes ran out of money.

"The transition to digital is a classic case of government screwup," says Douglas Gomery, media historian at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"No one in the White House or Congress was paying much attention to how the conversion was going late last year," Gomery said. "And then as the deadline approached ... the folks in Washington suddenly realized they had underestimated how many people were affected."

By January, the $1.34 billion set aside for the coupons was gone. One of the first actions of the administration of President Barack Obama when it arrived Jan. 20 was to request a delay in the switch until June 17, when more funds and coupons could be made available.

Congress agreed two weeks ago, and Michael Copps, the acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asked the largest stations in the nation if they would hold off until June.

The groups that agreed to hold off include stations owned by CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, Telemundo, Gannett and Hearst-Argyle.

"We wanted to do everything possible to give all viewers as much time as we could to get ready and make the transition so it's as seamless as possible," said Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of Baltimore's WJZ (Channel 13), a CBS-owned station.

Sinclair Broadcast Group of Hunt Valley, which owns or manages 58 stations in 35 markets, opted to stick to the original date. William Fanshawe, general manger of Sinclair's Baltimore stations WBFF (Channel 45) and WNUV (Channel 54), confirmed the switch, but he declined to comment further.

Fanshawe said the stations will shut down the analog signals at midnight tonight, but for the next two weeks, WBFF and WNUV will broadcast a message about how to make the transition.

Other Maryland stations that will pull the plug on their analog signals tonight include WBOC in Salisbury and WJLA in Hagerstown. The smaller the market, the harder it is to bear the additional cost of running analog signal, analysts say.

Still, the FCC forced 123 stations - most of them in smaller markets - to keep broadcasting in analog because they were deemed too important to their communities.

Gomery predicts that there will be two groups of people who could be "howling mad" when the analog signals disappears.

"The ones no one talks about too much are the kind of folks who live 50 miles outside Baltimore with a hill between them and the city," he says. "Maybe they don't watch much TV except for football and news, and so they have always put up with a fuzzy picture. Well, after midnight, they won't have even that, and they are not going to be happy about it."

The other group includes elderly city dwellers - one of the groups for whom the coupons were intended.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has been working for months to help her constituents make the switch. But she said a number of the senior citizens in her district, which includes Charles Village and Waverly, still have not received their government coupons. And others who have installed the converters have reported poor reception, she said.

"A lot of my constituents are going to have to switch to other stations," Clarke said. "They're not ready. That's a real loss. TV is a major window to the outside world for many of them."

But the switch to digital might not be as simple as providing more vouchers. For older viewers in particular, the changes and the new equipment are hard to accept.

Eula Riggle, an 84-year-old retired secretary who lives in a Mount Vernon studio apartment, applied for a coupon and had a friend drive her to a nearby Rite Aid, where she bought a converter. But Riggle couldn't figure out how to set up the converter and ended up selling it instead.

"I'm an old-fashioned person," she said. "If they want you to have it, that's fine, I don't think they should tell you you have to have it. Whatever they do, they do. I'm just left out."

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