Some TV stations cutting analog signals; WRAL among those delaying switch

Posted February 16, 2009
Updated March 9, 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.

DTV Some stations cut analog signals

Some TV stations will cut their analog signals Tuesday and move to digital-only broadcasting. Others, including WRAL-TV, will take advantage of a grace period passed by Congress and wait until June 12.

About a third of TV stations planned to pull the analog plug Tuesday by midnight.

For years, the government and industry have 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 digital signals. When funding ran out for coupons to subsidize TV converter boxes, however, Congress got worried that viewers wouldn't be ready, and it hurriedly passed a bill to delay the deadline to June 12.

At the same time, Congress left the door open for stations to stick with 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 Monday, 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 said they were confident the large majority of viewers are prepared for the change, even if the message has been muddled on the timing.

“I think the majority of people, once they get everything hooked up correctly are finding that with a minimum of problem they are able to get the new broadcasting,” WRAL Digital TV Administrator Tyler Hobbs said.

Some people have complained about reception issues, which can usually be fixed with a simple antenna adjustment, Hobbs said.

KSFY, an ABC affiliate in Sioux Falls, S.D., 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, it 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 signed 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.

Some viewers may be having trouble receiving WRAL's digital signal because it is broadcasting from an auxiliary antenna. WRAL can't switch to the main antenna at the top of its 2,000-foot tower until the transition.

Even after the switch, some viewers who used to get marginal analog reception won't get some stations at all because of the cliff effect, which means you either get the signal or you don't.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • littlegramma Feb 18, 2009

    THe only question I have is WHY? Why must they "threaten" to do something by such a date, and then back off, how effective will these threats? SOunds like the boy who cried wolf? Seems quite typical of this administration, everything is sucha horrible crisis that we must act yesterday or the world will cease to exist, but they don't finalize anything for weeks. THis whole mess is a joke, along with the so-called stimullus package, which will set us back generations.

  • Pseudonym Feb 18, 2009

    Last I checked, the signal was free, rabbit ears and/or bowties may or may not have been free, but TV is not free: You still had to purchase a TV set.

    If you don't know by now about the switch, you are a loser and don't deserve a TV in the first place

  • discowhale Feb 18, 2009

    If the numbers from the Nielsen Ratings people are right, 5% of homes would not be ready for the conversion.

    That's the same 5% late for everything else. Church, school, work, etc. And just like this, most of it is lack of planning on their part. I say let them listen to the radio.

  • WRALSUCKS Feb 17, 2009

    WRAL I see is being a good little Serf.

  • JustAnotherPointofView Feb 17, 2009

    Little Timmy to Teacher:
    Can't you just delay our paper assignment like the gov't is doing w/ TV Miss Smith?

  • foetine Feb 17, 2009

    The rabbit ear antennas used to be free with your TV set. My old Sony had them built into the unit. I remember when the local UHF stations gave away the bowtie antennas to get more people to watch them. It wasn't until TV manufacturers decided to force us to go to cable did they make you buy them separately. There was also a time when your TV set came with handles so that you could easily move it.

  • artist Feb 17, 2009

    "The idea behind the switch was that TV has always been free, and the switch shouldn't make people pay for something that is free."

    Only reception is free.
    The old "rabbit ears" antennas were never free... you had to buy them if you wanted to watch TV. The boxes are no different.

  • bobbythreesticks Feb 17, 2009

    I would have hoped WRAL would have been one of the stations to drop their analog broadcast, I know I found out about the switch in 2000. The news papers and TV News stations have been broadcasting the switch for over 2yrs, if you aren't ready, you never will be. I urge WRAL to make the switch in accordance to the first drop date and not the extended that Congress enacted on the fly. This is just rediculous.

  • NCPictures Feb 17, 2009

    "The FCC stands to make billions off the switch, so they should be spending more money on the boxes." ---boingc

    Ummmm you really dont understand government too much do you.....

    The FCC is not a corporation. It is the government. The FCC does not "MAKE MONEY". Also TV is not a right. And the government should have NEVER paid people to get boxes.

    Time to be an adult boingc. Time to grow up and pay for your own things.

  • scooperhsd Feb 17, 2009

    WRAL CAN'T move to their final digital assignment until WCTI in New Bern vacates channel 48. If you're having problem receiving WRAL and you live southeast/east of the tower (just east of Garner) - you have a reason for NOT delaying. All this is accessible if you know where to look on the web and on WRAL's website.