x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Television going down tube for 3m American viewers

Confusion reigns despite a public campaign to prepare for the transition to digital broadcasting.

WASHINGTON // An unimaginable kind of life in the TV-obsessed US will set in after today in as many as three million households - life, that is, without the tube. Television sets in that many homes are expected to go pictureless as all full-power stations - those with broadcast signals strong enough to reach most parts of the country - move to comply with a June 12 deadline to stop broadcasting in analogue format and go all-digital. Many people have no idea what that even means, at least from a technological point of view. So the US government has been trying for more than half a year to prepare the masses for the "DTV" transition.

One public awareness campaign last autumn included the sponsorship, by the Federal Communications Commission, of a Nascar race car that served as a billboard in motion promoting the dtv.gov website. In its first two of three appearances, the car crashed. Looking back now, the fiery end seems like something of an omen, even though the FCC chief maintained at the time there was no such thing as bad publicity: while the switch initially was mandated for February, the Obama administration had to request a four-month delay, until today, because six million households were unprepared. Confusion lingered over what steps had to be taken. The government also botched implementation of a coupon programme to subsidise consumers' purchase of special digital-to-analogue converter boxes.

This all might seem like much ado about nothing. But television-watching is as much a national pastime here as baseball. Ninety-nine per cent of homes have a TV, with a minority of them owning just one set. TV Guide, which first published in 1953 with an I Love Lucy cover, is in the top 10 of best-selling magazines. According to a Nielsen Company study last year, the average person spends 142 hours a month watching television, which translates to more than 4½ hours - or nine 30-minute sitcoms - a day. That figure is up from 137 hours a month in 2007.

With the four-month extension, the vast majority of households are in fact now prepared. But as of the end of last month, about 3.1 million homes - or a little less than three per cent of "TV households" - that needed to take action had not, Nielsen reported. African-American and Hispanic homes are less prepared than the national average, as are those headed by individuals younger than 35. Some households across the border in Canada that pick up US stations also will probably notice outages; residents there were urged to take action early so as not to lose any stations.

The switch is supposed to be a good thing. Not only will it free up the airwaves for emergency-service communications, US officials have explained, it will result in better picture and sound quality and more programming choices - at least for those who still have a picture. From the start, people seemed rather perplexed by the whole thing. Some mistakenly believed they had to get rid of their old sets and buy a new one (environmental groups have warned of the dangers of tossing old TVs in the landfill, filled as TVs are with lead). Some thought they were being forced to subscribe to costly cable.

Scores who sought to take part in a programme providing up to two US$40 (Dh147) coupons per household, good towards the purchase of converter boxes, could not get them because the government ran out of funds; a reported two million people were put on waiting lists. The coupons are once again available, to the end of July. Officials are expecting more confusion now that the transition is finally here; the government's DTV hotline received a record 65,000 phone calls on Monday alone from customers with questions or complaints.

eniedowski@thenational.ae