TV switch from analog to digital happens Friday, ready or not

by Lindsay Toler, Seattle Times

As many as 33,000 Seattle-Tacoma area homes are still unprepared for the switch to digital television, and TV watchers only have until Friday to prepare.

As commercials first aired informing viewers of the upcoming switch from analog to digital television, Adnan Munye didn't pay attention.

"I have kids!" he explained, flashing an exasperated smile and motioning toward his fussing 2-½-year-old son, Ali.

"Now I realize I need it," Munye said last week at a DTV box-swap event in his New Holly neighborhood. He dropped by with his son, got his questions answered and registered to get two $40 coupons to trade for DTV converter boxes. Now he's prepared for the switch, which occurs across the country on Friday.

"It was easy," he said. "It was nothing."

About 300 converter boxes were distributed at last weekend's two box-swap events in Seattle, and hundreds of households applied for coupons, according to Reclaim the Media, the Seattle-based nonprofit that helped organize the swaps.

The FCC estimates about 10 percent of households in the Seattle-Tacoma area use antennas to pick up over-the-air broadcasts and constitute the market most affected by the change. But as many as 33,000 households in the area — more than 4 percent — are estimated to be unprepared for the switch, according to the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The broadcast system was tested at 5:28 p.m. May 21. If you watched your TV and didn't notice an interruption, then you were ready for the switch. If you lost your signal, you weren't and you need a converter box.

The switch is being made to bring full-power TV stations into compliance with a law passed in 2005 that requires them to broadcast digitally. The transition will make more room on the broadcast spectrum for public safety communications, such as police- and fire-department announcements, and will improve picture and sound quality, according to the FCC. Digital TV is more efficient than analog, enabling stations to offer several channels of programming where analog has allowed only one.

The change was supposed to happen in February, but the federal government delayed it largely because it was unclear how many people would lose the use of their TVs without a converter box. There was — and still is to some extent — fear that the switch would leave many senior citizens, people of color, low-income households, non-English speakers and other underrepresented populations without access to the health, safety and other important information broadcast on free TV, said Tania Maria Rosario, area coordinator at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

Since the February postponement, the federal government authorized an additional $650 million worth of coupons that consumers can use to purchase the boxes.

Having the extra time has paid off, say groups involved in educating the public. With awareness among viewers at a high level, attention is turning to potential reception problems.

Those using a converter box or a digital TV set should use the "scan" or "auto tune" function periodically to pick up every available channel. In addition, viewers should test the location of their antennas.

All of the major Seattle-area television stations are now broadcasting both digital and analog signals. Government agencies and local television stations are opening phone lines and training personnel to answer questions for those who lose their signals on Friday.

"We do expect a lot of calls," said Willie McClarron, broadcast operations manager at KING 5. "The call volume has really picked up [already]."

Local TV stations will send employees to a call center at KING to field all questions about the DTV switch on Friday. The center's number is 877-429-1811.

Seattle government officials will direct calls about the transition to the Office of Cable Communications or the FCC, but other offices — such as the Customer Service Bureau, the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens, even the 911 and police nonemergency dispatchers — will be prepared to answer questions or direct callers to the right place.

article originally published at Seattle Times.

converter boxes

Just wanted to say "thank you" for your easy to follow re-scan directions. I lost signal for 3 stations after the fri. night conversion. I followed the directions for auto tuning, and was set to go in less than 5 min.

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