Tomorrow will be the end of a years-long process from drawing board to fshut-down analog transmitters as the digital transition becomes final. And while there are estimated to be 2.2 million U.S. homes still not ready, the FCC and stations are. Call centers and info hotlines are staffed to help viewers with problems and volunteers are ready to make housecalls. Got a DTV transition tale to tell? Throughout this weekend, TVNewsCheck will be covering the big move and we invite readers to share their experiences. Send them to [email protected].
Tomorrow night at midnight, hundreds of TV stations across the country will pull the plug on their analog broadcast service.
And, as fate would have it, tomorrow night is also the seventh and final game of the Stanley Cup finals. The NBC broadcast of the showdown between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings starts at 8 p.m. ET and should be over by midnight. But what if the match goes into sudden-death overtime and runs past midnight?
“Any programming — breaking news, the NHL championship, it doesn’t matter — the analog signal gets shut off and people will lose out if they’re not prepared,” says Sterling Davis, vice president of engineering for Cox Broadcasting, which owns and operates WPXI, the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh.
As President Obama said in a statement last week, this time the government means it, there will be no further delay; analog disappears June 12 at midnight.
Fortunately, not many hockey fans will be risking missing the end of the big game.
After a long and concerted campaign by government and industry, most Americans have weaned themselves from analog TV broadcasting by signing up for cable or satellite, buying a new digital TV set or installing a converter box that permits them to receive digital signals on their old analog sets.
According to SmithGeiger’s survey released this morning, 88.3 percent — or 16.6 million — of homes that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting for TV service have already made the switch to digital.
That still leaves 11.7 percent or 2.2 million that are at risk of losing TV service this weekend. And, of those, SmithGeiger says, 1.75 million have taken no steps to prepare for the switch.
But the 1.75 million, which other surveyers say includes a disproportionate number of low-income, rural and non-English-speaking viewers, will be getting plenty of attention this weekend.
While broadcasters continue to air DTV awareness and instructional messages, some 4,000 FCC-paid agents will be manning a toll-free number (1-888-CALLFCC) around the clock and another 200 will be spread out across the country.
According to the FCC’s William Lake, the agency has set up 500 walk-in centers and clinics where viewers can go for DTV help and, through contractors and volunteers (AmeriCorps and firefighters), they expect to make 200,000 house calls.
Meanwhile, many TV stations will be busy making last-minute changes to towers, antennas and transmitters prior to shutting down analog.
“It’s much better to be over-prepared than under-prepared, and we’ve been through this time and again with tests and retests. Everybody’s biggest concern is with the unknown and confusion with viewers,” says John Viall, VP, engineering and operations, LIN Television.
“The nuts and bolts of what’s expected Friday will be more gradual than a sudden on-off at midnight. Stations will be flipping the switch through the day,” Viall adds.
Joe Snelson, VP and director of engineering, Meredith Broadcasting, says that several of his stations will not be waiting till midnight.
“We start with one station at 5 a.m. that will start running a character generator till afternoon when we hit the off button. That gives people lots of time to see what’s happening and to call during normal business hours. That’s how it will run through the day,” Snelson says.
“The only exceptions are the three stations that have channel changes. There’s no graceful way to do that.”
Even after the deadline comes, one station in most markets will continue to broadcast an analog “nightlight” service, a loop of an NAB-produced eight-minute DTV primer. It explains how to rescan channels for digital signals and the like. If that does not suffice, it will tell viewers to call the FCC hotline.
The FCC says later today it will release the list of the stations that have volunteered to provide the nightlight service in their markets.
Hearst Television still has eight stations that will need to make the switch.
“We’re well prepared and are putting into play some contingency plans for equipment that hasn’t been delivered,” says Marty Faubell, VP, engineering, Hearst Television.
“We also have staff in to answer the phone. There will be calls, and we will be ready to respond. Predicated on what we have seen in our soft tests over these last months, we don’t expect a lot of pandemonium.”
If Faubell is right, perhaps your best bet for excitement Friday night is the Stanley Cup final — on a big-screen HD set with a cable or satellite hookup or a good antenna.
Got a DTV transition tale to tell? Throughout this weekend, TVNewsCheck will be covering the transition and invites readers to share their experiences. Send them to [email protected]