Friday , June 12, 2009
NEW YORK —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."
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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.