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The blue screen of disappointment

November 20, 2008 |  5:45 pm

Jon_healey_logoDTV transition, analog cutoff

With the economy collapsing and the ranks of the unemployed growing, the last thing this country needs is a shortage of cheap entertainment. Perhaps that's why the Senate, unable to agree on plans for another economic stimulus package or a bailout for U.S. automakers, managed to approve a bill that would help consumers keep their televisions on after local stations turn off their analog channels on Feb. 17, 2009.

When those transmissions end, consumers who rely on over-the-air TV and don't have a digital tuner or converter box will be left with nothing but a blank screen. A trial run of the cutoff in Wilmington, N.C., in September went about as well as possible, yet numerous viewers were still caught unprepared. With 10 million or more consumers across the country relying on rabbit ears, chances are that thousands won't be ready for the shift even if the vast majority of Americans know it's coming.

That's why the Senate gave speedy passage to S 3663, by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). The bill, like a more prescriptive measure awaiting action in the House (HR 7013, by Santa Barbara Democrat Lois Capps), calls for the Federal Communications Commission to let stations temporarily continue broadcasting on their analog channels. The broadcasts would be limited to emergency messages and instructions for how to get help making the switch to digital, including a phone number to call and an URL to visit.

The measure makes sense, but it wouldn't address what's likely to be the biggest problem for the transition to digital. As the Wilmington experience demonstrated, a non-trivial percentage of TV viewers simply can't take all the steps needed to prepare an analog TV for digital broadcasts. (The easiest solution is to hook your TV up to cable or satellite service, but if you don't already have pay TV, that's an expensive way to go.) These folks might be able to buy a converter box, but they need help from family members, friends or volunteers to hook it up, program the remote and scan for digital signals. It's not rocket science, but it's not as easy as plugging a toaster into the wall and turning it on, either. That's why local governments and community groups need to start lining up volunteers now to help the elderly, the disabled and -- yes -- the clueless buy and hook up their digital converter boxes before their free TV gets lost in the digital transition.

Los Angeles Times photo

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.