Digital TV Switch Is a Signal Not Received

Fears grow that millions of consumers will be left with TVs that don't work.

Television, uncropped

Get ready, consumers: American broadcast television is undergoing a radical change that could render millions of TVs useless.

That simple message isn't getting across to enough households, raising concern that whole swaths of American homes will see their TVs turn to snow next February. That's when Congress has said major stations must turn off the TV signals that have entertained us for most of a century and switch to modern, more efficient digital technology.

The switch will bring many benefits, including clearer pictures and sound to those who can get them. But as many as 40 million U.S. homes depend at least partly on antennas, and most of their televisions will go blank unless they get converter boxes that translate the digital signals for old televisions.

The potential outcry has led to calls for more aggressive efforts to warn consumers of the pending switch to digital television—and renewed speculation that the deadline could be pushed back once again.

Or pushed forward. That's right—broadcast regulators are considering "test runs" in some markets that would turn off the old TV signals before the February deadline. "Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night," wrote FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in a letter this week. "The DTV transition deserves no less."

Bottom line: Consumers should get ready now, says Phillip Swann of "The process so far is not going well," he says. A bungled switchover could hit the country like a hurricane, with recriminations and finger pointing to follow. "It would be absent Katrina's death and destruction," Swann says. "Then again, you start taking away people's TV, and who knows what will happen?"

The federal government has started to send $40 coupons to consumers who apply online and say they need converter boxes for their TVs. But those coupons could run out.

And even a converter may not be enough, warns Barry Goodstadt of Centris, a market research firm. Many homes now dependent on broadcast TV will also need new antennas to get the new, digital signals, he says: "But nobody mentions the word 'antenna' in any of the educational materials."

He fears the experience here may be no different than in the United Kingdom, where up to a third of outdoor antennas and half of indoor models need to be replaced in that country's switch to digital television.

Some homes will clearly face problems getting the new signals, agrees Gerry Kaufhold, a market analyst at In-Stat. But he thinks the transition will plow ahead largely on time. Deadlines may be extended in some markets or for some stations. But the stations themselves will almost all be ready. More important, after resisting the change for years, most broadcasters are now enthusiastic about the switch, Kaufhold says.

For one, broadcasting in two formats costs the stations extra money. They also have spent billions of dollars on digital technology and want to fully exploit its power. The digital gear has eased moving local content—such as news, weather, and traffic—onto the Internet and cellphones. "Stations are making money off of those new services," Kaufhold says. The broadcast signal is no longer their only source of income.

In fact, many broadcasters also hope that new technology will enable their digital images themselves to move to a new class of mobile TV. Those hand-held models would allow consumers to watch sharp TV anywhere while on the move. "If it works, and it appears that it does, it would change the whole game of broadcasting," Kaufhold says.

So setting aside precisely when it finishes, the digital transition is in full swing. It falls to the consumer to be ready.