Digitalizan TV Estadounidense


TV shows were replaced by the hiss of static in perhaps 1 million U.S. homes Friday as stations ended their analog broadcasts and abandoned the transmission technology in use since the days of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Howdy Doody.

The vast majority of households that rely on antennas for their TV signals were prepared for the shutdown, but many people remained vexed by the challenge of setting up digital reception.

Hundreds of people began lining up about 3 a.m. Friday outside the Freestore Foodbank in Cincinnati, five hours before the agency began giving out 250 free digital converter boxes. The center had given all the converters away by 10:30 a.m., and many people were still in line.

Harvey Durrett, 48, said he got in line about 6 a.m. but was unable to get a converter, which costs about $40 to $60 in electronics stores unless the consumer has a $40 coupon from the government.

"I'm on disability, and I can't really afford to buy one," Durrett said. "I can't get anything on my TV now, so I guess I'll have to go to friends' houses if I want to watch anything."

Any set hooked up to cable or a satellite dish is unaffected by the end of analog broadcasts, but around 17 million U.S. households rely on antennas. Nielsen Co. said poor and minority households were less likely to be prepared for Friday's analog shutdown, as were households consisting of people younger than 35.

TV stations were free to choose when in the day to cut their signals, and many were holding off until late at night. That means the full effect of the shutdown will not be apparent until this weekend.

At WTTG, a Fox affiliate in Washington, the 11 a.m. newscast concluded with the signoff used when the station was a part of the old DuMont Broadcasting Network — playing The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by a test signal. Then at noon, the station showed an engineer pushing a red button to shut off the analog broadcast.

TV stations, electronics stores and the government said most of the calls they received Friday were from people who had converter boxes, but needed help setting them up.

Fox affiliate WUPW in Toledo, Ohio, cut its signal at 8 a.m., making it one of the first stations to go. By 5:45 p.m., the station's five-person phone bank had received about 170 calls.

Chief engineer Steve Pietras said many callers had put off hooking up their converter boxes because they thought that digital broadcasting did not start until Friday. Like most stations, WUPW has been broadcasting digitally for years, alongside analog.

"That's kind of causing some last-minute jitters in a lot of people," Pietras said.

The Commerce Department reported a last-minute rush for the $40 converter box coupons: It received 319,990 requests Thursday, nearly four times the daily average for the past month. In all, the government has mailed coupons for almost 60 million converter boxes. The limit is two coupons per household.

It takes nine business days for a coupon to reach the mailbox. Leo Jones, a 79-year-old retired school administrator in Ontario, Calif., was chagrined to learn this Friday. His coupon will not get to him in time for the fifth game of the NBA playoffs on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Lakers could be crowned champions.

"I'll have to visit my neighbor," Jones said. "I would rather watch it at home."

The government is accepting coupon requests and offering technical support at 1-888-CALL-FCC. Federal Communications Commission spokesman Mark Wigfield said that by 2 p.m. Friday, the agency had received 122,389 calls, nearly four times as many as on Thursday, the busiest day so far.

Among several confusing elements to the transition, many stations were moving to new frequencies Friday. That means that even digital TV sets and older sets hooked up to converter boxes need to be set to "re-scan" the airwaves. New TVs and the converter boxes have menu options, accessible through their remote controls, to enable a re-scan.

Some people might also need new antennas, because digital signals travel differently than analog ones.

A weakly received analog channel might be viewable through some static, but channels broadcast in the digital language of ones and zeros are generally all or nothing. If they do not come in perfectly, they are blank or show a stuttering picture that breaks apart into blocks of color.

The shutdown of analog channels opens part of the airwaves for modern applications like wireless broadband and TV services for cell phones. The government reaped $19.6 billion last year by selling some of the freed-up frequencies, with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless the biggest buyers.

The shutdown was originally scheduled for Feb. 17, but the government's fund for converter box coupons ran out of money in early January, prompting the incoming Obama administration to push for a delay. The converter box program got additional funding in the national stimulus package.

Research firm SmithGeiger LLC said Thursday that about 2.2 million households were still unprepared as of last week. Sponsored by the broadcasters' association, it surveyed 948 households that relied on antennas and found that 1 in 8 did not have a digital TV or digital converter box.

Nielsen Co., which measures TV ratings from a wide panel of households, put the number of unready homes at 2.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the total television market, as of Sunday. In February, the number was 5.8 million.

Both the Nielsen and SmithGeiger surveys counted households as unprepared even if they have taken some steps toward getting digital signals, like ordering a converter box coupon.

Nearly half of the nation's 1,760 full-power TV stations had already cut their analog signals even before Friday, mostly in less populated areas.

Even after Friday, low-power analog stations and rural relay stations known as "translators" will still be available in some areas. And about 100 full-power stations will keep an analog "night light" on for a few weeks, informing viewers they should switch to digital reception.

The change also put a few stations off the air temporarily, making them available only through cable and satellite. In Syracuse, N.Y., NBC affiliate WSTM shut down both analog and digital signals at midnight. The digital signal will be restored this weekend, after the station completes its work to move to a new frequency, said Laura Hand, community relations director for the station.

WGTU in Traverse City, Mich., was off the air at midday and was working to come back up before the Detroit Red Wings played Game 7 of the Stanley Cup on Friday night.

"We do have some folks here that we don't want to disappoint," said Jill Saarela, the head of the station.


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It's not just TV viewers who will be relieved when analog broadcast signals are shut down Friday, sparing them from incessant reminders about converter boxes. Some business are eagerly awaiting the end of a process that began in 1987, when the shift to digital broadcasts was proposed.

"We're really excited that this is finally behind us," said Bill Stone, president of Qualcomm Inc.'s FLO TV service.

FLO TV, which broadcasts digital TV to specially equipped cell phones, spent $558 million one year ago for the rights to use UHF Channel 56 around the country. Qualcomm counted on being able to use that frequency right after Feb. 17, when U.S. full-power TV stations were originally slated to end their analog broadcasts.

The delay of the analog shutdown to Friday forced Qualcomm to postpone the launch of FLO TV service in new markets, costing the company tens of millions of dollars, Stone said.

Qualcomm will activate FLO TV service in 15 markets this weekend, including Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco. More markets will launch later this year, bringing FLO closer to its goal of nationwide coverage.

Cellular carriers Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. paid a combined $16 billion for spectrum to be vacated by TV broadcasters, but the delay has had little effect on them, since the wireless broadband equipment they plan to deploy is still in development. Verizon Wireless plans to turn it on next year.

The analog shutdown also helps TV broadcasters, which have suffered greatly because of declining advertising rates in the economic downturn. Several are in bankruptcy protection. After Friday, broadcasters will be freed from having to maintain expensive analog antennas. The vast majority of them are already broadcasting digitally, so there is no new cost coming for replacement broadcasts.

Best Buy Co.'s chief executive, Brad Anderson, said last year he was "very nervous" about being able to get and distribute adequate stocks of digital TV converter boxes ahead of the shutdown.

"I think it's one of the biggest risks our industry has," he said.

But manufacturers and electronics retailers have met the challenge of supplying converter boxes, which generally cost $40 to $60. And sales of digital TVs — which don't need the converters — have been strong even as other consumer spending has declined.

Other businesses have also gotten a one-time bonanza out of the transition.

A St. Louis-based manufacturer of TV antennas, Antennas Direct, said sales for the first quarter of the year more than tripled from the same period last year, to $2 million.

The cable industry has tried to sign up new customers who would rather not deal with the challenge of getting set up to receive digital TV broadcasts.

Joel Kelsey, policy analyst at Consumers Union, testified before the Federal Communications Commission last week that cable TV operators have run ads that say viewers have to act to not lose TV service, without mentioning that consumers can buy a converter box for which a $40 government coupon is available.

The ads "take advantage of the confusion around the digital transition," Kelsey told The Associated Press. Moreover, when consumers have called cable companies to sign up for a low-cost plan that was advertised, they have been pressured to buy more expensive services, Kelsey said.

While some customers might not have had a good experience when they called to sign up for service, National Cable and Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said, cable has "gone beyond the call of duty" to educate consumers. The association said cable companies have spent $250 million on ad campaigns that promoted only the digital TV converter boxes and coupons.

Cable companies have said the transition netted them some new customers in the first quarter, but it wasn't a mass migration. Time Warner Cable Inc. told investors Thursday that it had a spike of new customers in February, around the time of the original deadline, and call center activity has picked up this week as well, as the last procrastinators start dealing with the transition.

The beneficiary of the greatest windfall from the transition is undoubtedly the U.S. government. It has pocketed $19.6 billion from the auction of freed-up airwaves.

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