Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Off the Air

Even though Congress moved the deadline to June 12, hundreds of TV stations will switch to digital broadcasting next Tuesday.

Lawmakers explained that despite years of planning, the $1.5 billion federal program to aid consumers during the switch has been underfunded and overwhelmed. A program that offered consumers $40 coupons to buy converter boxes reached its budget limit last month, leaving the requests for more than 3.7 million coupons on a waiting list. It will be months before they can be delivered to consumers.

But while Congress has postponed the long-standing February deadline, hundreds of stations have been preparing to move ahead anyway. Some station officials explained that they’ve already scheduled the crews to make the switch; others said their budgets didn’t allow for continuing transmission of the analog signal.

True to human nature, no matter how much prior planning you do, there’s always someone who either doesn’t get the word or doesn’t believe you when you tell them.

In Fort Myers, four of the five commercial stations intend to go all-digital next week, mainly because the new deadline, June 12, is in hurricane season, which would cause public safety risks. About 5 percent of the viewers in the market rely on over-the-air broadcasts, said Wayne Simons, general manager of the CBS affiliate, WINK (Channel 11). The station did soft tests in January and didn’t receive many calls from viewers.

The FCC is encouraging stations to continue airing transition information and public safety alerts over analog airwaves for 30 days after they switch to all-digital programming. Most of them are not doing so, according to the FCC.

“There’s always going to be a certain percentage of people who won’t be ready,” Simons said. “We won’t be any more prepared June 12 than we are right now.”

For the record, I’m on Comcast cable, so my old analog TV’s work just fine.