The Monitor's View

The digital TV cliffhanger

Weak signals may wreak havoc when the US switches to digital TV.

In preparing for America's big switch to digital-only broadcast next year, the US government has neglected to say much about trees. And hills. And buildings. These can disrupt digital signals and result in blank screens. It's a significant oversight that may cost millions of viewers money and aggravation.

In some respects, the country is proceeding nicely toward the switch-over. After Feb. 17, in accord with a congressional mandate, full-power TV stations must stop transmitting analog signals and change to digital ones that offer a sharper picture and more viewing choices.

Most broadcasters are already sending out digital signals along with analog ones. They'll turn off the analog signals come February.

And most viewers won't be affected by the transition because they subscribe to cable or satellite services, which will make the conversion on their end. But about 17 million households watch only free-of-charge, over-the-air analog signals via "rabbit ears" and rooftop antennas. It's here where the government is stumbling.

These viewers must buy set-top converter boxes at $40 to $80 each (the government is supplying two $40 coupons per household, available at www.dtv2009.gov or by calling 888-388-2009). Or they can buy digital TVs or subscribe to cable or satellite.

But the coupons expire after 90 days, and only about half of the nearly 23 million coupons distributed have been redeemed. Meanwhile, some people with new converter boxes find the boxes don't work fully or at all due to weak digital signals. Even new digital TVs may have reception problems.

The reason is the "cliff effect." When analog signals are disturbed, the picture gradually degrades. But digital signals are much more sensitive to disturbance, and screens can suddenly break into pixels or freeze, or just be blank. There's no way to fix this, except to re-aim an antenna, upgrade to a more expensive and stronger one – probably on the roof – or subscribe to cable or satellite (www.antennaweb.org can help viewers select an antenna).

This problem is not featured in public service announcements and is buried on government websites. Centris, a media market-research firm, estimates that 9 million households could have their TVs cliff diving when they convert to digital. A third of these households won't receive any channel signal at all, or will only get one channel. Disturbance will be worse in urban areas. The government says digital signals will improve when broadcasters move digital equipment to the tops of towers in February.

Everyone needs to get on the ball here, and quickly. Those households keeping their over-the-air analog TV sets should buy their converter boxes now – and not wait until February to experiment with antenna placement that could have them up on icy roofs.

The federal government must do a better job of explaining digital signal weakness and warning of possible costly antenna upgrades, or, in some areas with no signal, a need to buy cable or satellite. In Britain, the government is making the digital transition over time and subsidizing antennas. A coastal area of North Carolina going all-digital on Sept. 8 could reveal whether the US needs to adjust its plans.

A transition meant to allow continued free access to television may end up costing consumers.

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