Let's review where things stand a little more than one month from DTV-Day -- the day that old-fashioned analog TVs will stop working -- currently set for Feb. 17.
• There's a waiting list for government coupons so people can buy converter boxes so they can continue to watch television on those old TVs. A waiting list! Sounds almost like a breadline. Church groups are actually being enlisted so people with unused coupons can donate them to "needy" TV watchers. Rome fell after just such a coupon shortage.
• The president-elect thinks we need to postpone the event, but the head of the FCC thinks we need to move forward. After all, think of all the posters that have been printed up!
• Electronics stores are making a killing selling $800 TVs to consumers who walk in looking to buy a converter box.
• The cable TV industry has made a killing by using the issue to market its products to confused consumers. Meanwhile, the industry is undergoing its own painful analog-to-digital conversion.
• Despite all the publicity about the conversion -- and more than $1 billion spent on coupons -- tens of millions of viewers are likely to see their televisions turn into bricks on Feb. 17. These will include TV watchers in remote places like rural New Jersey and in dense cities like New York. And there has been virtually no publicity around the "other" issues facing over-the-air TV viewers come DTV-Day, including the fact that even if their TVs and converter boxes work, their antennae won't.
This is why I keep saying that Feb. 17 is the real Y2K. I know those of you with satellite or cable television have been watching this story with bemused detachment, but trust me: You don't want to be wandering the streets of American cities the day 10 million or 15 million televisions go dark.
About 20 million Americans rely on over-the-air broadcasts for their television service, and another 15 million have at least one antenna TV in their homes, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Dallas and Los Angeles alone, there are 1 million over-the-air households, according to Consumers Union's Chris Murray.
The truth is more people should consider getting their TV over the free airwaves. Cutting out pay TV can easily save a household $1,000 a year, and it's probably the single easiest way to find extra money for the monthly budget. Also, many electronics aficionados will tell you that over-the-air HD channels are higher quality than their pay TV counterparts, because the signal is not compressed as much in delivery. And when you do get your digital TV working correctly, you'll be pleased at the extra offerings you'll discover. Because of extra bandwidth available, many local network stations broadcast multiple channels, sometimes called "sub" channels. Those new to over-the-air digital might find a channel 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3. NBC, for example, has made good use of its extra bandwidth in the digital TV world, adding a 24-hour sports channel called Universal Sports to its lineup. Each local station makes its own decision on what to broadcast.
But getting digital television to work with over-the-air sets is going to be a lot harder than most people realize.
The antenna is the big problem
After spending billions of dollars getting the nation ready for this silly game of coupon ordering and box buying, the FCC has entirely dropped the ball on the real issue with the transition: the antenna. As Consumer Reports antenna expert Claudio Ciacco told me, "Many more people will be screaming than most people expect."
The problem comes down to simple physics. When DTV-Day comes, TV stations will permanently move their transmissions from the VHF band (channels 2-13) to the UHF band (channel 14 and above). Ultra High Frequency transmissions have some serious drawbacks. Namely, their shorter wavelengths mean they don't travel as far, and they are susceptible to interference from objects like tall buildings. They also are much more sensitive to direction.
The upshot is that rabbit-ear antennae will be useless, at least for now. Rabbit ears only capture the longer VHF wavelength signals. To receive UHF signals used in digital broadcasts, you'll need that round-ish antenna which came with your rabbits ears (sometimes it's a bowtie-shaped clip-on). Let's hope you didn't throw the UHF antenna out.
If you're using an indoor antenna right now, there's a little good news and a lot of bad news. You can retract those ugly rabbit ears once and for all. But you'll have to spend a lot more time rotating the UHF antenna: To tune your TV, you'll have to literally pick it up and rotate it until you find the channel you seek. Each channel may require a different direction. And now for the really bad news: If there's a building in your way, you're out of luck.
In the old rabbit-ear days, you could fiddle with your antenna positioning, hang the thing out the window, and perhaps get reception that was less than perfect but better than nothing. Thanks to the intolerance of digital technology, you will now get nothing. The Federal Communications Commission has given this phenomenon the rather cute name of the "cliff effect." I guarantee that on Feb. 17 people will have other names for it. I can also promise you that people in cities who have never had trouble picking up TV signals will find themselves falling off this cliff.
I recently experimented with the cliff effect while visited a remote area of the U.S. – a building three miles from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In my unscientific test, half the channels either "cliffed" or were occasionally interrupted by pixilation – or digital decay -- without extensive antenna manipulation.
People with rooftop antennae will face the same problem. You may have spent years optimizing your antenna for VHF channels. If so, that work is wasted. If your antenna is equipped a UHF grabber and a device that allows you to rotate it from your living room, you are in luck. Otherwise, you won't know your capacity to receive DTV signals until you perform the climb-on-the-roof-and-yell-to-your-buddy routine.
Unfortunately, February typically doesn't present the best weather conditions for such trial and error.
"If I'm in Minnesota, do I really want to be on my roof fiddling with an antenna right now?" Murray said.
The sad truth, say Murray and other experts, is that millions of consumers will probably have to buy new antennae to deal with the digital TV changeover. For them, there are no swanky coupon programs or marketing explanations. In fact, there is not even agreement over what equipment will work best. In other words, the 35 million over-the-air consumers are on their own.
How big is the problem?
How many people will be hit by antenna problems? It's impossible to say, but here some food for thought. Nielsen, the TV ratings service, says 8 million U.S. TV watchers are "totally unprepared" for DTV-Day, meaning they haven't even gotten a converter box yet. We can only assume they haven't bothered to get new antennae either. If we modestly double that number and say that 8 million of the other 27 million over-the-air users will have antenna problems, that means 16 million households will no longer have working televisions on Feb. 17.
There is very limited real-world data to predict what could happen. Beginning on Sept. 8, the FCC conducted a DTV test in the Wilmington, N.C., market. Within five days of the moment that local broadcasters switched off their analog signals, the FCC received close to 2,000 telephone complaints, about half related to antenna issues or converter box installation.
There's two ways to look at that number. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin called the test a success, noting that less than 1 percent of Wilmington's 400,000 customers had problems. On the other hand, only 14,000 households in Wilmington were using antennae in the first place. One in seven of them had complaints.
And remember, Wilmington isn't exactly in the Rocky Mountains or Manhattan's Canyon of Heroes. It's easy to imagine much higher complaint ratios in rural, mountainous areas or dense urban areas.
Bruce Kushnick, who runs consumer advocacy group Teletruth, said he's run extensive tests in rural New Jersey -- about halfway between New York and Philadelphia -- and found high rates of digital failure. More than half of the consumers his organization visited lost access to at least a few channels.
"I believe it's going to be 50 (to) 80 percent of rural fringe areas (will lose some channels). The way it worked in Jersey is that most people lost something, but as we're finding out, there's other variables like which wiring the current TV set uses, even whether you're on the top of the hill or the bottom," he said. "Our belief is that no regulator wants to admit that this is going to be a nightmare."
There are many other unknowns about the DTV crossover. Ciacco, the Consumer Reports expert, said some of these issues could be mitigated because broadcasters plan to boost power in the digital signals after their analog broadcasts are shut down. It's unclear which stations will do so, and how much that will help, however.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Antenna: The only way analog TV viewers can know what will happen on Feb. 17 is to plug in a converter box and try it out with their existing antenna. If it doesn't work, don't run out and buy a Cadillac-model $100 antenna right away. First, try a cheap loop or bowtie indoor model, and fiddle with its direction. That might solve your problem. If you have a little free time, you can even build your own DTV antenna for free using wire hangers by following these simple directions viewable on YouTube.
Coupon: If you don't have a coupon and you need a box, don't pay full price. Get on the government waiting list. I expect that the FCC and Congress will reach a compromise and make more coupons available. If you spend $60 on a box now, you won't get a refund.
As a last resort, sign up for "limited basic" cable for the short-term. This shouldn't cost you much more than $10 a month (you'll have to ask for this very cheap rate by name; most cable firms don't advertise it). You'll get all the over-the-air channels. Just make sure you aren't required to sign a contract. Within a few months, converter boxes will be nearly free, after the price subsidy from the government coupons dries up.
I predict you'll be able to get one for $10 by June, so a temporary cable subscription will tide you over.
If you don't yet have a converter box and you want to get some idea of how precarious your reception will be, try tuning your set to UHF channels in the 30s, 40s, or 50s. Your success at pulling those stations is a pretty good predictor of your ability to pull in DTV signals.
P.S. FOR THE GOVERNMENT
• First off, fix the coupon program. Why do these things expire in 90 days? Why do they take six weeks to arrive? So far, only about half the coupons sent out have been redeemed; the rest are just floating around. Congress needs to fully fund the program. It's basically an accounting trick anyway, as the unspent coupons will eventually be returned to the government's balance sheet.
Right now, 360,000 people each day are asking for government coupons, and they're all being hung out to dry. I know people shouldn't wait until the last minute, but more than a month before the changeover is hardly last-minute.
While we're on the subject of coupons, what a terrible system. All converter boxes are the same. The faux market created by the $40 government coupons has artificially propped up the price to $60 to $80. This should be a lesson in what happens when the government creates a faux market with heavy subsidies. Why should converter boxes cost more than DVD recorders?
• Delay the deadline. A DTV delay is tricky. Broadcasters will have to spend extra money to keep pushing out analog broadcasts past Feb. 17. I've heard estimates that this will cost local stations about $10,000 per month. That's serious coin, and I understand their opposition. But the sudden loss of millions of viewers will hurt even more. A more rational approach, suggested by Consumers Union's Murray, is to sequentially roll out the conversion around the country, rather than as a single switchover, so consumers and regulators can learn from their mistakes along the way.