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Panel: Analog TV Shut-Off Test Succeeded

Hollywood, Calif. — The recent analog TV shut-off test in Wilmington, N.C., provided valuable insights into how to prepare for the national DTV transition planned for Feb. 17, 2008.

That’s what panelists said during the DisplaySearch HDTV Conference session on the digital television transition, here, Wednesday.

John Taylor, LG public affairs and communications VP, said that on the first day of the analog shut-off in the Wilmington, N.C., test city earlier this month the FCC received 797 calls. Only 23 of those people said they were unaware of the transition or got the date mixed up. A majority of the other calls were related to people who waited until the last minute to hook up their boxes, and they needed assistance with setup, Taylor said.

Similar results are expected for the rest of the country as Feb. 17 draws closer.

Taylor said the digital converter boxes that LG sells under the Zenith brand and various OEM customers’ private labels have totaled more than 3 million unit sales to date.

The government allocated $1.3 billion in funding for 33 million redeemed converter-box coupons, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The first $900 million of that is available to any household with an antenna-connected TV.

To date, 75 percent of that funding has been spent. More than 10 million coupons have been redeemed and counting at a rate of 50,000 per day. Approximately 2,300 retailers are selling coupon-eligible converter boxes.

Taylor said a big effort will begin in the coming months to help consumers with digital converter boxes or digital televisions connected to antennas understand the importance of re-scanning their channels, because on Feb. 17 about 600 digital TV channels will move to other frequencies.

At midnight on Feb. 17 in many markets, digital channels now on UHF frequencies will be transitioning over to  high-band VHF. Zenith converter boxes, Taylor said, have been designed to complete the channel scanning process “in about 30 seconds.”

“So anyone with a converter box or a digital television connected to an antenna will need to rescan their channels to continue receiving some stations,” he added.

Harold Protter, the CW Television Network technology senior VP, said, “The analog turn off is going to work OK on Feb. 17. There will be some chaos for three or four weeks. Keeping [set-top converter box] inventory current is going to be a problem. On the other hand, on Feb. 17, there are going to be pretty long lines at RadioShack, Best Buy and Circuit City” to purchase them.

Protter is one of 1,100 speakers chosen by the National Association of Broadcasters to go out into communities to educate the most vulnerable residents about the coming analog TV shut-off and the various steps that need to be taken to ensure no interruption in service once the analog airwaves go dead.

Protter said there are 19.6 million U.S. households estimated to be analog-only and another 15 million are said to get analog reception on one or more secondary sets. Most affected consumers seem to be aware of the coming analog shut-off, although confusion exists over various aspects involved, Protter said.

He said one of the biggest areas of confusion is about the need to connect the set-top converter box or digital television set to an antenna in order to receive signals. Many senior residents, he said, seem to think they only have to connect the box to the TV set to get signals.

On a positive note, Protter said that he has found that the digital TV broadcast signals “tend to go further than they do in analog. We get better results 80 to 90 miles from the transmitter with digital than we ever could have hoped for with analog if you have decent line of site and the right antenna.”

Echoing Taylor’s call to inform residents about the need for the channel rescan on Feb. 17, Protter said many older residents can’t comprehend the channel rescan situation.

“When you tell them that they look at you like you’re speaking in a foreign language or you are speaking in tongues,” Protter said.

He added that a lot of people who may have bought a digital television set in the last two or three years or an accessory like a DVR in the last year or two, have no clue that they already have a digital tuner in their equipment.

Many who have cable or satellite TV services don’t understand that they don’t need to do anything except hook up their sets, he said. “They are still afraid that something is going to go away.”

“On the other hand, the service providers have not done anything at all to suggest that their subscribers need to hook up that extra set in the kitchen or bathroom before Feb. 18,” Protter said.

Many also don’t understand that over-the-air HDTV is free, and that in many markets, many more channels of programming are available.

Protter said broadcasters learned from Wilmington that when people have a problem after the analog shut-off switch is thrown, they call the television stations. The NAB is working with stations now to train support staff to provide the right answers, Protter said.

Lou Lenzi, Audiovox accessories product management senior VP, said his company is armed with an assortment of in-door antennas to ease the converter box and DTV hookup and set-up process. The company’s mission was to offer solutions that are “better than rabbit ears,” he said. The RCA-branded antennas are said to “fit the new designs and technologies of today’s displays practically, disappearing into your décor.”

Several models feature a flat design, including the RCA 1450, shipping now, which uses Microstrip technology. The technology involves etching unique antenna patterns onto a printed circuit board. The omni-directional units can be mounted on the wall in either a vertical or horizontal orientation and still receive a good signal, Lenzi said.

The RCA branded antenna line offers models in a price range from $10 to $99.