When I was a kid, it was a big deal when we got a TV antenna up on the roof. No more rabbit ears wrapped in aluminum foil that you had to move around to find a station.
It was a marvel. You turned it with a dial that sat on the TV. You ratcheted the dial to the direction you wanted, and there was a ka-chunk, ka-chunk noise as the antenna rotated into place and a picture emerged from the static.
Good grief! That was four decades ago. And yet, if you look for them, there are antennas still in use all over the place. There are 163,000 households in the Tampa Bay still using them, according to the feds. There are 650,000 statewide.
But after Feb. 17, unless those folks do something, they are out of luck. That's when most TV signals in the U.S. will switch to a digital format. The old setups won't work any more.
The other day a member of the Federal Communications Commission was in the Tampa Bay area to spread the word about this. I went to hear him because, you know, there are always senators, presidents and such running around, but I had never seen a real live member of the FCC.
I expected a big shot in a suit with an entourage. He turned out to be a guy named Mike wearing a polo shirt who graduated from Northeast High School in St. Petersburg in 1959. Who knew?
At the Sunshine Center in downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday morning, Michael J. Copps spoke to an audience of all of 23 people, if you don't count the TV news crews.
Just to be clear, Copps said, if you have cable or satellite television, no change needed.
But if you don't, you've got three options:
(1) Subscribe to cable or satellite.
(2) Buy a new digital TV. (If you've bought a TV in the past few years, check to see if it's already got a digital tuner.)
(3) Buy a converter box to hook up to your old TV. This is a gizmo that costs something like $40 to $80, You hook up the wire from your old antenna to this box, and then the box to your TV.
The feds will even give you two $40 vouchers, which look like credit cards, to buy converters at the store of your choice. Better do it soon.
Here's what you do. Call this toll-free number: 1-888-DTV-2009. (That's 1-888-388-2009). Or go to www.dtv.gov.
Copps and a couple of young FCC staffers had a demo rigged up. The picture is good, but you still have to jiggle the antenna now and then, like always. Lots of today's stations already are broadcasting on multiple digital channels at once, so once you get this, you get all kinds of new stuff on your TV,
I yakked with Copps for a couple of minutes beforehand. He's been one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC since 2001. He used to be a history professor, then was a longtime aide to a U.S. senator (Fritz Hollings of South Carolina).
I wanted to ask him about a bunch of other stuff, such as fines for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, why Dolly Parton is mad at the FCC (something to do with wireless microphones), and the fairness doctrine.
But he was already running late for Kathy Fountain's show on WTVT-Ch. 13, and since I am a Kathy Fountain fan, I did not want to mess her up. I left wondering whether today's generation of antenna users, shoved into a digital world, will find the same delight in new things that our rooftop model brought us 40 years ago.