Confused by the DTV switch? It may be getting worse

by Julio Ojedo-Zapata, St. Paul Pioneer-Press

If you thought delaying the digital television transition until June would make it easier on everyone, think again.

Twin Cities stations were to switch to all-digital broadcasts Feb. 17, but Congress just pushed the deadline to June 12. Once the bill is signed by President Barack Obama as expected, millions of unprepared viewers will have extra time to get ready.

That is only part of the story. At least one Twin Cities station, WUCW on Channel 23, will still go all-digital in 11 days, as will several stations in outstate Minnesota and in western Wisconsin.

So while the bulk of Twin Cities stations plan to delay their switch until June, consumers who use antennas to get certain shows now will need to pay closer attention.

While some over-the-air programming will be available in both analog and digital versions, other programs will be digital-only. For viewers using antennas with older TVs, this will involve buying and setting up a digital-converter box by Feb. 17 regardless of the deadline extension.

"We'll have a hybrid situation for a while," said Jim du Bois of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.

"My greatest concern now is to minimize consumer confusion. We've certainly been pounding that Feb. 17 date into viewers' heads for a couple of years. Now the game has changed."

WUCW, part of Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting, is among about three dozen of the chain's 55 stations going digital as originally scheduled, said Joe Tracy, Channel 23's general manager.

"We have more than done our due diligence in preparing the public for the transition," said Tracy, who notes the station has repeatedly aired transition-related infomercials and participates in community grass-roots efforts to educate local consumers.

"We think it's the right decision" to go ahead on Feb. 17, Tracy added. "Quite frankly, we don't think the public will be that much more prepared, come June."

But WUCW's analog broadcasts may not stop entirely. It looks to be part of a national "night light" program to air a loop of transition-education programming on phased-out analog channels for at least a month after Feb. 17 and possibly through June 12, Tracy said.

Such education is needed. About 12 percent of metro residents are "completely unready" for the digital transition, and 19 percent are "partially unready," according to Nielsen Online figures for late 2008.

St. Paul-based Twin Cities Public Television was set to debut a roster of over-the-air digital channels and halt analog broadcasts Feb. 17, said Stephen Usery, TPT's vice president of marketing and communications.

TPT now plans a blended approach, proceeding with its new digital lineup while keeping its analog broadcasts through June. "If the community is not ready, we don't want to leave people behind," Usery said.

TPT's analog offerings will include a primary channel and a secondary one focused on Minnesota legislative news and lifestyle shows. On digital, TPT will offer a primary channel in high definition and standard-definition channels focused on lifestyle topics, Minnesota-related programming and weather.

Other local stations that will delay deactivating their analog broadcasts include WCCO, KARE and KSTP.

In Wisconsin, at least two stations in Madison and five in the La Crosse-Eau Claire area plan to flip the switch Feb. 17. Five stations in Iowa also will switch over that day.

"Congress is allowing viewers more time to make the transition, and we're going to take advantage of that extra time," said KSTP general manager Rob Hubbard. "There are significant costs associated with that, but it's worth it to allow as many people a seamless transition as possible."

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission ordered stations still planning to cease analog signals Feb. 17 to notify the agency by Monday. Acting Chairman Michael Copps said the FCC could prohibit stations from making the switch if doing so is not in the public interest.

But the delay does little to help consumers who were late in applying for federal coupons to defray the cost of converter boxes. The coupon program is out of money, and those applying now are being put on a waiting list estimated at more than 3 million requests. Separate congressional action is being considered to replenish the coupon program.

This story includes information from the Associated Press.

article originally published at http://www.twincities.com/ci_11640725?IADID.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey