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Millions may miss digital TV deadline

Times Staff Writer

For millions of Americans, the digital revolution might not be televised.

One in 5 U.S. households -- more than a million in the Los Angeles area -- depends on rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna to watch TV. Without converter boxes, most of their sets will go blank the day in 2009 that federal law requires broadcast stations to turn off analog signals and transmit only in digital.

The shift is being hailed as broadcast television’s most dramatic upgrade since it bloomed to color from black and white half a century ago. The technology gives free TV viewers vastly sharper pictures and enables networks such as ABC and PBS to offer a wider range of channels.

The 80% of Americans with cable or satellite service won’t be affected by the change. Neither will those who have newer, digital TV sets. If you do have an old analog TV hooked up to an antenna, you need only buy a converter box, which will probably cost about $50. The federal government is going to hand out subsidies to help pay for it, and you have two years to get ready.

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Civil rights leaders and lawmakers are uneasy anyway.

A recent poll found that 61% of people who rely on broadcast TV aren’t aware of the digital shift. What’s more, households without cable or satellite service tend to have lower incomes, and blacks and Latinos are more likely to receive only over-the-air TV than whites.

The worry isn’t that people will miss vital episodes of “American Idol.” It’s all about staying connected. Even today, with news a 24/7 affair on the Internet and pay TV, nearly two-thirds of viewers say broadcast news is the main way they find out what’s going on in the world.

“When I walk into people’s houses, they’re tuned in to the news,” said Alex Nogales, president of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition. He is testifying on the digital-TV transition before a House subcommittee today. “Am I concerned that our community is going to be left out? Of course.”

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Federal law requires broadcast stations to turn off analog signals and transmit only in digital on Feb. 18, 2009.

TV networks, cable providers and consumer electronics makers have joined to raise public awareness through websites and an estimated tens of millions of dollars worth of televised public service announcements to begin airing next year.

The Commerce Department plans to give most anyone who applies a $40 coupon to buy a no-frills converter box -- limited to two per household. The department has budgeted nearly $1.5 billion, enough for about 34 million converters. But an estimated 70 million TVs are hooked up to antennas, including extra sets in homes with cable or satellite.

For broadcasters, who base their advertising rates on the number of viewers watching, the transition looms as the dawn of a new digital era -- and a potential financial disaster if viewers aren’t informed.

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“The last thing we want is a train wreck on Feb. 18 of 2009,” said Dennis Wharton, vice president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which represents local stations and TV networks.

Broadcasters are eager for the switch. They think viewers will buy digital sets to receive high-definition programming and the additional channels the technology allows. Stations also would significantly cut their energy costs because they won’t have to transmit both analog and digital signals.

Once TV has gone digital, a wide swath of the analog airwaves will go for free to public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, so they can improve their communications systems. The rest will be auctioned off by the government, with major telecommunications firms such as AT&T; Inc. and possibly even Web giants such as Google Inc. expected to pay as much as $10 billion to use it for wireless high-speed Internet service.

For some TV viewers, the continuing digital conversion already has launched a new era. They’re discovering that those relics of the pre-cable era -- antennas -- can deliver sharp programs, many in high-definition.

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That’s because digital broadcasts offer clear, vivid reception over the free airwaves. And broadcasters can transmit several additional channels on the same frequency because the signals take up fewer airwaves than analog. For example, NBC affiliates have started offering a digital 24-hour weather station.

“When people see the picture quality of [digital] over-the-air -- and it’s free -- it’s kind of mind-blowing,” said Kevin Nakano, a 42-year-old electrical engineer who has already made the switch to digital broadcasts at his south Torrance home.

Digital TV sets are sharp enough to make the new broadcast signals look great, and the Consumer Electronics Assn. said sales of digital TVs outpaced those of analog sets for the first time last year. Plus, prices are dropping -- standard digital TVs are projected to average $901 this year and high-definition sets, $1,150.

Broadcasters are hoping that more viewers will hook up antennas to their digital sets and get hooked on free TV.

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“Today, over-the-air television is regarded as sort of your grandfather’s technology,” said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. “But digital over-the-air broadcasting really creates a new experience and adds a lot of value that costs the consumer nothing.”

Some of the TV watchers who will have to make the transition are known as cable rejecters -- people who can afford pay TV but choose not to get it.

Frustrated by the high cost and hassles of cable and satellite, Greg Brouwer, 34, and his wife hooked up their 32-inch analog TV to a rooftop antenna at their Los Feliz home. They catch up on older shows by renting DVDs.

“We call it the rabbit ears-Netflix plan,” said Brouwer, an ABC News editor. “We both really like the fact you can get quite a bit of entertainment without having to pay anything.”

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Brouwer said he had no idea about the digital-TV shift, but he would probably shell out the cash for a converter box.

“That’s a bummer,” he said.

Mandy Tam of San Gabriel was also in the dark on the change. If her screen went blank in 2009, the 30-year-old USC pharmacy graduate student said, she would have assumed the $400 TV she bought last year had broken.

“Maybe I would bang on the TV a couple of times, and then I’d just skip it,” Tam said.

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But many people haven’t chosen to skip the digital TV revolution -- they just haven’t been able to afford it.

A 2005 Government Accountability Office survey found that 48% of households receiving only broadcast TV through antennas had incomes of less than $30,000, compared with 29% of households with cable or satellite service.

The federal government’s plan to raise public awareness has been criticized as inadequate. The administration is budgeting only $5 million to notify nearly 300 million Americans about the transition. By way of comparison, the German city of Berlin spent $1 million to notify its 3.4 million residents of a similar shift in 2004.

Worried that people would be caught off guard, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has suggested that Congress could delay the transition date. It has already pushed back the rollout once.

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But advocates say another delay is unlikely, so they’ve got to start spreading the word.

Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, is worried that people who need the converter-box coupons the most will be the last to learn about them.

“Like some science fiction nightmare, the news they watch, the programs that actually keep them company and let them know what is happening in the world, could -- poof -- disappear,” she said.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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The technology

Traditional TV

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Since its birth, TV has broadcast in analog, with relatively low-resolution signals that use large amounts of airwaves.

Digital TV

Digital signals can carry sharper pictures and take up less of the airwaves, allowing broadcasters to transmit several programs at the same time.

High-Definition TV

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Digital TV also allows for even higher-resolution pictures in a wide-screen format, known as high-definition, but this format takes up more of the airwaves than a standard digital signal.

Source: Federal Communications Commission

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Making the switch

Sales of digital TVs have outpaced analog sets

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Annual TV sales in the U.S. [please see microfilm for bar chart information]

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But many people still rely on the old TV technology

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Percentage of U.S. households by TV reception in 2005

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Cable: 57%

Satellite: 19%

Over-the-air antenna: 19%

Other or none: 5%

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Many antenna users are in lower income brackets

Percentage of over-the-air TV households and TV subscribers earning under $30,000 a year

Over the air: 48%

Cable: 29%

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Satellite: 29%

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Minorities are more likely to use antennas

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Percentage of racial minorities and whites using over-the-air TV

Nonwhite: 23%

White: 16%

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Sources: Consumer Electronics Assn., Government Accountability Office


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