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TV stations get ready to cut analog signal

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PETER SVENSSON
February 17, 2009
— In theater superstition, a bad dress rehearsal is supposed to foretell a good opening night.

If so, the U.S. might be in good shape when it turns off the last analog TV broadcasts in June, because the lead-up to the smaller-scale turnoff Tuesday has been confusing to both viewers and TV stations.


For years, the government and industry has said Feb. 17 would be the day when analog TV signals go away, and viewers who lack cable or satellite would have to tune in to digital signals. But when funding ran out for coupons to subsidize TV converter boxes, Congress became concerned that viewers wouldn't be ready, and hurriedly passed a bill to delay the deadline to June 12.


At the same time, Congress left the door open to stations to keep the Feb. 17 date. When a third of U.S. full-power stations said they'd like to do so, the Federal Communications Commission put its foot down, placing extra conditions on some of them. Only late Friday did it become clear, or nearly so, which stations would shut down analog four days later, and which would wait for a few more months.


A patchwork of 641 stations across the country, mainly in thinly populated areas, are still turning off their analog broadcasts this week or have already done so. The most populous markets where many or all major-network stations are cutting analog include San Diego and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; La Crosse and Madison, Wis.; Rockford, Ill.; Sioux City, Iowa; Waco, Texas; Macon, Ga.; Scranton, Pa.; and Burlington, Vt.


"I think this whole delay is ridiculous," said Robert Prather, president of Gray Television Inc., an Atlanta-based company that owns 36 stations. "It's just going to cause confusion among consumers. There's no reason in the world for it that I can understand."


No one really knows how many viewers will be affected this week. Nielsen Co. said 5.8 million U.S. households, or 5.1 percent of all homes, were not ready for the analog shutdown, but it's unclear how many of them are in early-shutdown areas. Also, the National Association of Broadcasters has taken issue with Nielsen's numbers, saying they exaggerate the problem by counting households that have digital converters but haven't connected them.


"The ones who aren't going to be ready aren't going to be ready in June any more than they are now," Prather said.


Gray applied to keep the Feb. 17 date for most of its stations, but the push-back from the FCC left it with 14 that could. As a final twist, Gray over the weekend decided to turn those off on the 16th, some in the afternoon and the rest at midnight, because its lawyers interpreted the rules as saying analog should be "off the air by the 17th" rather "go off the air on the 17th."


Other stations differ in their interpretation, and plan to cut analog sometime on Tuesday.


Meanwhile, newspaper inserts from RadioShack Corp. proclaimed across the country this weekend that Feb. 17 is the day when viewers "must take action to continue receiving TV broadcasts," even though two-thirds of TV stations, and nearly all the ones in major cities, will remain on the air in analog for a few more months. A spokeswoman for the company was unavailable on Monday, a holiday.


Station owners contacted by The Associated Press are confident the large majority of viewers are prepared for the change, even if the message has been muddled on the timing.


KSFY, an ABC affiliate in Sioux Falls, S.D., also planned to shut down its analog transmitter at midnight Monday.


"If we really, deep down, thought that the market wasn't ready for it, we would have, with the others, said, 'Yeah, let's wait till June,'" said Kelly Manning, the station's general manager.


Alan Miles, a former analyst at Barclays Capital who studied the analog shutdown, said the whole process has been "botched politically," starting with Congress' order that the entire country had to kill analog at once. Nearly every other country is shutting down or planning to shut down analog broadcasts area by area. Only small, cable-dominated countries like the Netherlands have eliminated analog TV all in one go, like the U.S. planned to do on Tuesday.


Then, Miles said, the coupon program was underfunded, leading to the delay, which has turned into a disorganized partial shutdown.


"There will be problems with the transition, inevitably," Miles said. "So I almost feel like it's better to just get it over with rather than postpone the pain."


One benefit of having some stations shut down analog early is that the FCC's DTV call center (1-888-CALL-FCC) will now have a better chance of handling calls from viewers wondering how to get their TV signals back. Together with industry partners has nearly 4,300 operators ready to help.


Also, the delay provides a chance for the converter box coupon program to catch up. The stimulus bill that President Barack Obama is expected to sign on Tuesday contains $650 million in additional funding. Once that's available to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, it can clear the 4 million coupon backlog in a few weeks.



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