February 17th is just around the corner. On that day, analog television goes away forever.
Just how many people are going to be affected by the digital transition? Nobody knows for sure.
Two years ago, the Government Accountability Office stated that around 20 million people might be affected. This is the number that the FCC is reporting. Other sources say it could be 14 million. It's anyone's guess as to what it really is.
But early attempts by the broadcasters to dip their toe into the digital-only ocean have met with discouraging results.
The Ohio Association of Broadcasters coordinated a "soft shutdown" recently to help over-the-air television viewers realize that their TV signals will be disappearing. According to sources, the call center set up to help people with the transition was flooded with calls and eventually crashed from the activity.
Last Tuesday, the FCC released new maps showing the changes in coverage areas for all 1,749 full-power TV stations in the US. The new maps showed that the majority of stations will see an increase of viewers, while some 11% will see a net loss.
And despite their efforts to educate viewers, the FCC now admits that there are going to be some people left out in the cold of the digital divide:
"it is inevitable that on February 17, 2009, some consumers will be unaware of the transition, some will be unprepared to receive digital signals, and others will experience unexpected technical difficulties."
Realizing they are now staring down the barrel of the gun they themselves loaded, the FCC has come up with a plan to try to address the 20 million people that may not be informed of crucial information in the time of an emergency.
They call it the Nightlight proposal, or more officially, the "Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness" (SAFER) act. It was proposed by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif) and it passed both the Senate and House by unanimous consent. President Bush signed it into law last week.
The plan allows broadcasters to keep at least one station in every market on the air with their analog signal after the Feb 17 cut off for emergency purposes and for informing the public of the need to switch their TVs to digital reception. It's a noble idea, but it has flaws from the start: out of the 210 television markets across the US, only 139 of those could technically provide this kind of service without interference from digital signals.
At best, it's a stop gap measure that only gives a 30 day extension to certain broadcasters.
If you are one of the 20 million or so that still watches TV with a set of rabbit ears or an antenna on a roof, you need to get pay attention.
Visit DTVtransition.org for information on how to get the discount set top box coupon.