HOLIDAY — No doubt you've heard about the upcoming switch to all-digital TV signals. Chances are you already have cable or satellite TV, which means you already get digital programming, so you won't see a change.
But the folks who still use antennas to get free analog reception will watch their TVs turn black as early as Feb. 17 unless they hook up to a new converter box. And believe it or not, even in this age of plasma-screen TVs, surround sound and high definition, there are plenty of older sets with rabbit ears out there.
One of them belongs to Joseph Zedar, 66, of New Port Richey. There's "garbage" on cable and satellite TV, he said, and they charge for the same shows he saw years ago for free. If you pay for TV, he said, "You've got to be brain-dead."
Another set of rabbit ears sits atop the 5-year-old RCA set belonging to Elizabeth Rick, 80, of New Port Richey. She "could probably afford" $10 a month to get basic cable. But she's on a tight budget and suspects that cable costs, just like everything else, will only go up.
Rosalie Maxey, 71, of New Port Richey tried cable one year for her 9-year-old grandson, Jonathan Castro, but dropped it after discovering, "I wasn't watching it and he wasn't watching it." She's had to fiddle with the antenna on top of her 28-inch TV, but for the most part she gets all the broadcast stations and one she thinks is Greek — at least "the music sounds Greek."
A whiz at connecting things, third-grader Jonathan and his mother's tech-savvy boyfriend tried to help Maxey get her television working with the converter box, but at first they could get only Ch. 10 and its 24-hour weather spinoff, Ch. 10.2.
"I think it's going to be a lot more complicated than people think," Maxey said.
The converter box is a tuner that flips the new digital signals into analog ones that old analog TVs can read. The federal government mandated that all television broadcasters, except a few low-powered stations, switch over to digital broadcasting to free up analog frequencies for wireless and emergency use.
The vast majority of residents already get digital programming through cable or satellite TV, so they won't be affected by the transition. Nielsen Co. reports that in the 10-county Tampa Bay area that includes Pasco, 75.5 percent of households are wired for cable and 16.5 percent have satellite TV.
That leaves the rest riding free TV.
Nationwide they account for millions of viewers. More than 26-million households have applied for $40 federal coupons off converter boxes, with more than 1-million more on a waiting list. The boxes typically start at $40, but some have been selling for less than $30 during the coupon hold.
Call for postponement
President Obama is urging lawmakers to push back the Feb. 17 transition deadline, as analysts say more than 6.5-million households are not ready. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wants Congress to keep the deadline for public safety reasons, but the Senate could vote this week to push the transition date back to June 12.
Since the big stations have been broadcasting in digital for about two years, anyone with a converter box or a new digital TV can see it now — theoretically. As Maxey predicted, there have been glitches.
"I'm getting about 20 new channels now that I never got before. They're all clear," said John VanY, 78, of Holiday, who has hooked up a converter box to his TV.
His one problem is football on Ch. 13. He hears the referees' calls and the fans in the stands — but no announcer. He figures he just has a wrong setting on the converter box, but doesn't want to mess with anything until after he and his wife, Jane, have seen the Super Bowl.
At a workshop this month on the digital TV transition, Louise Schmidt, 60, of New Port Richey was surprised to learn she'll need a second converter box for her VCR if she wants to record one program while watching another.
Roy Hancock, a Radio Shack store manager who answered questions at the workshop at Centennial Park Branch Library, said interests surrounding the issue have sought to profit from the changeover.
Television manufacturers, for instance, had hoped people would think the change meant they had to buy digital TVs. Then the government — and the cable and satellite industries — told everyone that wouldn't be necessary.
Buying a digital TV does solve the problem, though: You just plug it in and get the free digital broadcasts, no converter box required.
VanY thinks free digital reception will rival cable, and got the converter box so he wouldn't have to replace his 32-inch TV. But Joann Vanderploeg, 65, of Holiday thinks she might not bother with a converter.
"Maybe my best bet," she said, "is to just go out and buy a new TV."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Roy Hancock, manager of the Radio Shack in Bayonet Point, offers these tips on the transition to all-digital broadcast:
• If you're buying a new TV, buy digital, not digital-compatible. Otherwise, you'll still need a converter box. Make sure your new TV has an ATSC tuner.
• Don't let anyone sell you a "high-definition" (HDTV/DTV) antenna. Whether it's "100 years old or you bought it today," Hancock said, any working antenna should do.
• You may need to tweak your outdoor antenna a bit — 1 to 2 degrees to the southwest, or right.
• To see if a TV bought after 2003 is digital, visit dtvtransition.org.
• To watch a video on how to hook up the converter box, and for other information on the switch, visit dtvanswers.com.
• For a lineup of the free digital channels in this area, visit tampabayhdtv.com.
• To apply for a $40 converter box coupon (limit two per household), visit dtv2009.gov or call toll-free at 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009).