In case you just woke up like Rip Van Winkle, the DTV transition is in the home stretch.
Now little more than a month away, Feb. 17 marks the deadline when the nation's high-power TV broadcasters switch off their analog signals and go exclusively with digital transmissions.
For the vast majority of TV viewers this will be a non-event, since they receive signals via satellite and cable boxes that will make the digital to analog conversion for them.
However, there are still many people — with estimates ranging up to tens of millions — who may not see their regular programs when they turn on their sets on Feb. 18, because they will have older analog TVs connected only to over-the-air antennas.
Under a government plan that was nearing full approval as this went to press, those impacted people on that day are expected to instead see a digital TV informational message or an emergency alert explaining the change. Prior to CES, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives approved bills that grant stations the ability to voluntarily broadcast in analog format a digital TV informational message or alerts in the days following Feb. 17 as part of a Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act.
The legislation will give broadcasters one final opportunity to tell consumers where their TV programs have gone. It will ensure no TV viewer is left behind due to insufficient information, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.
This group of viewers has been targeted in a $1.5 billion government-subsidized TV converter box program.
"The DTV converter-box coupon program has been a major success," proclaimed Bart Forbes, spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which administers the coupon program under the Department of Commerce. "Since its inception, over 21 million households have requested over 38 million coupons and 16 million have been redeemed as of early December. That means 16 million converter boxes were purchased at retail. The redemption rate is 51 percent and rising as we get closer to the cutoff date.
He noted Congress appropriated enough money for 33.5 million coupons, and "we are prepared to meet the demand of the final two months."
The agency recently upped its forecast on total coupon orders to 51.5 million by the time it stops taking applications on March 31, and has ordered an additional 1 million coupons from IBM.
To alert the public, the NTIA and multi-industry parties, including the Consumer Electronics Association, are engaged in a massive education effort evangelizing the need to "apply, try and buy" converter boxes before Feb. 17. The NTIA is also stressing retailers should have adequate inventory for the final push and weeks beyond the cutoff date. There are nearly 200 DTV converter boxes available, according to the NTIA.
"As we enter the final weeks to the transition, we as an industry need to redouble our efforts to make sure no consumer loses their free over-the-air signals," said John Taylor, LG Electronics public affairs VP, who is also a member of the multi-industry DTV Transition team (www.dtvtransition.org) that is engaged in DTV transition public information efforts.
Taylor said that through the blitz of public service announcements, most consumers are aware of the change. "Now the message to them is don't wait until the last minute."
CEA spokeswoman Megan Pollack added a recent American Association of Retired People survey stated 96 percent of respondents are aware of the changeover. "Now we need to tell them to go do it," she said, since it takes approximately six weeks between the time a consumer applies for a $40 discount coupon and they receive it. Once purchased, the box has to be connected, the stations scanned and antenna adjusted or replaced, if necessary.
"One of the big lessons learned during the Sept. 8 turnoff in Wilmington, N.C., was the fact that many consumers waited until the last minute. They didn't adjust their antennas, read the manual or scan the channels. We are urging consumers to apply for a coupon, buy a box and try it out. Even before the cutoff they can enjoy the benefits of digital," Taylor added.
A week after International CES there will be a nationwide analog shutdown test, led by the FCC with the cooperation of the nation's broadcasters. It will be similar to the November soft shutdown test in Chicago. During that test, a digital OTA signal beamed a message that said: "If you're seeing this you're good to go."
A separate message was sent via analog that informed viewers: "If you're seeing this you need to take some action to continue watching TV."
Taylor acknowledged, "There will be some disruption on Feb. 17. Along with the shutoff, over 600 stations will move to new frequencies. Consumers will need to rescan their channels in most markets. Fortunately with most boxes it just takes a matter of seconds. This message to re-scan has to be communicated to all these consumers."
Along with converter boxes and digital televisions, antennas are a critical component in receiving broadcasts. With the transition "we're seeing fairly substantial sales increases at CE outlets and mass merchants," said Hank Caskey, reception VP of Audiovox Accessories, marketers of RCA and Terk-branded antennas. He expects sales will continue to climb especially when people discover the improved picture quality and the additional local TV channels they will receive over-the-air in DTV multicasts.
A major test was conducted in Wilmington, N.C., a city of around 75,000, last summer, and their experience might be indicative of the rest of the country, Caskey said. "We started seeing substantial upticks four weeks before the Sept. 8 transition, and some retailers reported almost doubling their sales. In fact, many ran out of stock since some older antennas weren't as good as predicted and replacements were required. Retailers need to be prepared with inventories," Caskey said.
In the Wilmington test, hundreds of people called the local TV stations to ask what happened. It was discovered many people had converter boxes but didn't connect them properly while others didn't follow directions or scan for their local stations. Surprised?
"Clearly the lesson from Wilmington is the simple fact people need to get their box, hook it up and follow directions," said LG's Taylor.