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Better find that coupon and get your digital converter box; TV switches to all digital

Talk to Chris Hendrix for very long, and the image of the forlorn Maytag repairman comes to mind.

Hendrix, 35, who was laid off by cable TV/telephone company Verizon in January, thought he had found a way back into the business three weeks ago when he saw that Texas company Tero Technologies was hiring technicians across the country to help with the digital TV transition.

Turns out, funds from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus legislation paid a network of companies nationwide to provide free help installing and testing digital-to-analog converters — ensuring that people who still pull in TV signals through an old-school rooftop or set-top antenna can still see television when broadcasters stop their analog signals today.

But because no one has publicized the service, Hendrix doesn't get any calls. The only conversions he has carried out were for friends and family; when a local TV station asked to watch his work, Hendrix had to hook up a converter in his own Gibsonton living room.

"I'm hoping things pick up once people hear about the service," he said, noting the company hired one other technician to work in the Tampa Bay area (call 1-877-360-9774 to request the service). "Nobody knows this free service is out there."

Area broadcasters hope that lack of interest means Tampa Bay area TV households are mostly prepared for the end of analog television broadcasts today — a momentous change more than eight years in the making.

About 28,000 of the 1.7 million TV watching households in the Tampa Bay area are completely unready for the end of analog TV signals, or 1.55 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research. That means they don't receive cable or satellite TV service and don't have a television set capable of displaying digital frequencies.

Nearly 93 percent of area households get TV through cable or satellite service, making the Tampa Bay area the 14th most prepared market in the country. Which may help explain why the FCC Web site listing Florida support centers offering help with the transition lists 27 companies in Miami, Orlando, Miramar and elsewhere, but none in the Tampa Bay area.

National figures show about 2.8 million households nationwide are completely unready — 2.5 percent of total TV households — less than half the number considered unready before the original deadline for ending analog TV, Feb. 17.

But the bottom line for broadcasters is simple and sobering: No one really knows what will happen once the area's biggest outlets stop broadcasting the analog signals they've maintained since the 1950s.

"I've said it before, there's always going to be a certain percentage of the population who will wait until the switch happens before they do anything," said Michael Pumo, general manager of Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8, which ends its analog signal at 5 a.m. today. "Do I think people are more prepared? I think they're slightly more prepared."

About half the area's broadcast stations are already digital-only, including MyNetwork station WTTA-Ch. 38, PBS affiliates WEDU-Ch. 3 and WUSF-Ch. 16 and Spanish-language WVEA-Ch. 62. Citing the costs of keeping an analog signal going from February to June — estimated at $100,000 to $300,000 — most of the stations in Fort Myers, Tallahassee and Panama City also shut off analog signals early when Congress extended the deadline from February to June, citing few problems afterward.

"Most calls we got were from people trying to make their converters work or improve reception," said Dick Lobo, general manager at Tampa PBS station WEDU, which switched off its analog service Feb. 17, saving an estimated $40,000. "We got a few hundred calls over a week, and it tapered off. In the main, it was a nonevent."

The area's biggest broadcasters will end their analog signals by 1 p.m. today, placing the transition during a weekday so all staff can help take phone calls from the public.

The TV industry has spent an estimated $1.2 billion making viewers aware of the coming switch; but since the people most likely to be unprepared are also the most isolated — senior citizens, recent immigrants, rural residents and the poor — no one really knows how many viewers might react once the change is made.

"I'm hoping this is going to be like Y2K ... a big buildup, and then nothing," said Rich Pegram, general manager at Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28. "But whatever happens, we think we're prepared for it."

Haven't switched? Here's help

What you should know for the digital TV switch

• Only viewers who receive TV signals through antennas connected to TVs that do not receive digital frequencies will be affected. Most newer TVs can receive digital signals.

• For free help installing converter boxes, call 1-877-360-9774. You must already own a converter.

• You can buy a converter for about $60 at an electronics retailer such as Best Buy, RadioShack or Wal-Mart. The government will provide coupons worth $40 toward these purchases until July 31 or when supplies run out. Go to dtv2009.gov to apply.

More help

• The technicians providing free help connecting analog-to-digital converters are not allowed to sell you equipment or services. They are allowed to connect up to two converters, scan for available channels and make minor adjustments to your antenna. See www.dtv.gov and enter your ZIP code in the Get Help Locally menu for multiple numbers. The FCC also has a hotline: 1-888-CALL-FCC (225-5322).

• If you already have a converter, you should scan for available channels after the switch today. Several broadcasters will change frequencies or frequency strength after ending analog service; rescanning ensures you won't lose channels.

• Portable analog TV sets used for emergencies, camping or boat trips will no longer operate, unless connected to a converter. There are a few battery-powered portable digital TVs on the market, priced at about $150 and at least one battery-powered converter kit, priced at about $90.

• High definition TV is different from digital TV. You can purchase a standard-definition TV set that receives digital signals, though some viewers have used the switch as an excuse to purchase televisions with greater features. Similarly, cable systems will continue carrying the same array of stations they always have.

• To see what new programming is available locally on digital channels, go to tv.tampabay.com. You'll need to pick your cable provider and scan pretty far down in the listings, but you'll know it when you come to the listing for WEDUDT, the first of local channels listed.

Better find that coupon and get your digital converter box; TV switches to all digital 06/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 11:41am]

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