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Nation Prepares for Analog’s Curtain Call

Attention focuses on public reaction, particularly from the unprepared.

As the final hours wind down before broadcasters finally shut off their full power analog signals, attention focuses on public reaction, particularly from the unprepared.

“In any change this big, there are going to be disruptions,” said FCC Acting Chairman Michael J. Copps this week. “We are trying our best to provide people, especially those who are most at-risk, with the help they need to make the switch as smoothly as possible. And we’re going to keep offering it after June 12.”

Copps is leading an agency that has gone into overdrive in the last week leading up to the transition. The commission has issued daily alerts discussing everything from the opportunities offered by broadcasters’ all-digital platform to debunking DTV myths and providing advice on proper antenna placement. Copps visited Los Angeles this week as part of the agency’s last minute outreach.

Numbers released this week from Nielsen show that, while much progress has been made in whittling down the numbers of the unprepared, an estimated 2.8 million households (representing 2.5 % of the television market), still are not ready for the analog shutoff. Younger, African American and Hispanic homes are disproportionately unready, while the elderly—the population segment that most relies on over the air TV—was described by Nielsen as “the most ready.”

NAB, which has disputed Nielsen’s numbers as too high, released their own data in a press conference June 11 estimating that about 2.2 million OTA households are unprepared. Approximately two-thirds of the nation’s broadcasters have already shut down analog and will be joined by more than 1,000 on Friday.

Advocates for those groups that are expected to be most affected reminded their constituents that it’ not too late to get onboard the digital train. In a press conference this week, DTV assistance providers shared tales of consumers getting assistance from the hundreds of help centers set up nationwide to help consumers with the technical details of converter box setup—including one senior citizen who not only brought in his converter box, but his TV set too.

The advocates also stressed that, with the analog shutdown occurring during a deep economic recession, springing for any additional funds—no matter how small—creates a difficult obligation for households.

“One of the main issues during this transition has been economics,” said Steven Renderos, DTV Assistance Provider with the Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project. “It’s been extremely important to provide a no-cost converter box for those families that cannot afford to pay more than the $40 coupon. Many communities have been able to bridge the gap between residents unable to get the economic support by partnering with local retailers and organizations to provide affordable boxes.”

DTV Assistance Centers are preparing themselves for a busy weekend as broadcasters begin shutting down analog signals throughout the day on Friday. “We expect to help thousands of residents right here in the Bay Area over the next few days,” said Annie Chung, president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly in San Francisco. “We are staffing up this week with the expectation that the number will double or triple.”

The FCC has targeted specific areas of the country where last month’s DTV soft test indicated were the least prepared were located, including Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas and New York. SmithGeiger LLC, which conducted NAB’s preparedness survey identified the southwest region of the U.S. as the “least prepared.” Puerto Rico was also identified as a high risk area, with relatively few consumers tied to cable.

According to the NTIA, which operates the converter box distribution program, as of Wednesday, 60.2 million coupons have been requested so far, 32.5 million households have been approved for the coupons and 30.9 million coupons have been redeemed. Coupon requests peaked on Monday, June 8, when the organization fielded 179,000 applications.

Spot checks with several RadioShacks in the Washington, D.C. area indicated, that while sales of converter boxes have greatly increased over the past week, there are no reported shortages of the devices.

Lately, publicity about the transition has focused on urging consumers to set up their converter boxes immediately and scan for digital channels often. “No matter how much time and money we spend for consumer education, we also realize not everybody is ready for the change,” said Paul Karpowicz, Television Board Second Vice Chair for NAB. “Some viewers will wait until the very last minute or even after June 12 before they take any action.”

Of course, setting up a DTV converter box does not guarantee reception, a lesson learned by many who were willing to settle for weak snowy analog signals but now may see just blue screens when tuning to the new digital channels.

“We’ve tried very carefully not to minimize the fact that there will be reception issues for various consumers for various reasons,” said William Lake, Digital Television Transition Coordinator for the FCC “Our mapping indicates that the majority of stations will actually gain viewers than lose them and that the majority of users will actually gain channels rather than lose them. But there will be a number of people, both in the urban areas and in fringe areas who will have reception issues and we and broadcasters plan to work with them not only over the next few days and weeks, but over the next several years. There are measures that can be taken…putting in distributed transmission systems and translator systems that can help to improve transmission over time.”