msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/11/2009 10:45:05 AM ET 2009-06-11T14:45:05

More than 2 million households are in danger of seeing their major broadcast TV channels disappear into a fuzz of static when analog service ends Friday, according to surveys.

That is nearly half the number that were unready in February, when most analog TV broadcasts were originally scheduled to be turned off. The shutdown was delayed for four months at the behest of the Obama administration.

Research firm SmithGeiger LLC said Thursday that about 2.2 million households were still unprepared around the beginning of June. Sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters, it surveyed 948 households that relied on antennas and found that 1 in 8 had not connected a digital TV or digital converter box.

Nielsen Co., which measures TV ratings with the help of a wide panel of households, put the number of unready homes at 2.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the total television market, as of Sunday. In February, the number was 5.8 million.

Nielsen said minority households are less likely to be prepared, as are households consisting of people under age 35. Households with people older than 55 are far more likely to be prepared than the average.

The Albuquerque-Santa Fe area continues to be the nation's least ready market in the Nielsen survey, with 7.6 percent of TV households still unprepared.

Nielsen does not survey Puerto Rico, which is also believed to have many unready households. Both the Caribbean island and New Mexico have relatively few households connected to cable. Households that have all their sets connected to cable or satellite service are unaffected by the analog broadcast shutdown.

Both the Nielsen and SmithGeiger surveys count households as unprepared even if they have taken some steps toward getting digital signals, like ordering a converter box coupon.

Stations will start cutting their analog signals Friday morning, but many will wait until the evening. Nearly half of all U.S. stations have already ended analog transmissions, though most big-city stations have held off until Friday.

"We’re by no means satisfied that something over 2 million households across the country are still completely unready," said William Lake, digital television transition coordinator for the Federal Communications Commission. "Our No. 1 objective over the weeks to come — it won’t end tomorrow — is to help these consumers get ready so they won’t lose their over-the-air reception."

Lake's comments came at a press briefing by those involved with the digital TV transition, including the FCC, National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association.

Lake said there are more than 4,000 agents staffing the FCC's toll-free hotline, 1-888-225-5322 (1-888-CALL FCC), "available to answer the phone 24 hours a day for the next several days to answer any kind question that arises, from to how do I get a coupon to how do I adjust my antenna?"

For those consumers who wake up Saturday morning "to a blank, blue screen," Lake said, more than 100 stations across the country "in most of the major markets" have agreed to provide a "nightlight" service, providing a continued analog signal that will "carry only public safety information and information about how to get help with the transition."

The FCC also will be working with broadcasters over the weekend "and over the coming weeks to help them deal with any technical issues that may arise with the transition," he said.

"We know that many broadcasters will have to make changes — either increase their power or some need to move their transmitters ... We'll be available 24 hours a day to help them confront any technical issues that arise."

Since February, when Congress agreed to delay the digital TV transition, the FCC has used some money from the national economic stimulus recovery act to arrange for local contractors to make in-home visits to consumers who may have difficulty setting up a needed converter box and antenna if they don't already have a digital television set, or use cable or satellite.

Contractors have gone to more than 200,000 homes in the past four months, Lake said.

Funding has also gone toward a massive public education campaign coordinated by groups such as AARP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 200 groups.

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