Owners of thousands of small television stations that reach rural populations or specialize in community affairs and minority programming are worried the digital transition is going to leave their audiences watching a blank screen.
It's all because of a little-noticed exemption in the congressionally ordered, nationwide migration of the television industry to digital broadcasting.
On Feb. 17, 2009, owners of full-power television stations will turn off their old-technology analog signals and broadcast in digital only. Viewers who receive their signals through an antenna who don't have a digital-ready TV will have to buy a converter box.
But here's the wrinkle: the mandate to go digital applies only to the roughly 1,760 "full-power" stations in the U.S. There are more than 2,900 low-power television stations and about 4,400 signal-relay stations known as "translators" that will not be required to go digital by the deadline.
Those low-power stations provide service to rural areas and to specific communities in urban areas that are not targeted by big broadcasters. Such stations are much cheaper to build, and unlike full-power stations, broadcast almost exclusively to viewers who use antennas to pick up programming.
Translator stations rebroadcast the programming of full-power stations. They serve areas that are too far away from a full-power transmitter, or are cut off from a signal due to mountainous terrain.
So what's the problem?
The government is encouraging over-the-air television viewers to buy a converter box before the digital transition date, and is subsidizing the cost with two $40 coupons per household. The boxes "down-convert" a digital signal to analog, thus allowing older televisions to pick up programming.
If a viewer who watches programming broadcast on a low-power or translator station buys the wrong box, he may be in for a frustrating experience.
Signals from full-power stations will come in fine. But most of the boxes that have been certified for sale will block the low-power signal if it is being broadcast in an analog format.
The situation would become even more frustrating if a set receives signals from both low-power and full-power stations. Digital channels would work with the box, but not without it. Analog channels would work without the box, but not with it.
It is tough to say exactly how many viewers will be affected. Most of the low-power stations are too small or too remote to subscribe to audience rating services like Nielsen. In addition, some low-power stations have already converted to digital broadcasting on their own.
But Amy Brown, executive director of the Community Broadcasters Association, says there are "tens of thousands" of viewers in "every major TV market" who will be affected.
For viewers who want to receive both digital and analog channels, the solution is a converter box that includes a "pass-through" feature. Such a box would convert the digital signal and allow the analog signal to "pass through" to the set unmodified.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is administering the coupon program, has approved three boxes that will pass through analog signals: the Philco TB150HH9, the Philco TB100HH9 and the ECHOSTAR TR-40.
Brown's organization, which represents low-power television stations, asked the Federal Communications Commission to outlaw boxes that don't have the pass-through feature. Barring that, they are asking for labels to be placed on the converter boxes.
The group has also criticized the NTIA for not requiring electronics makers to include the pass-through feature on their boxes. They are also upset that the NTIA and the FCC have been incorrectly telling the public that all broadcasters will turn off their analog signals in February of 2009.
The NTIA, for example, on its digital transition brochure notes that "after Feb. 17, 2009 all television broadcasts will be digital."
The NTIA says requiring the pass-through feature in all boxes would have pushed up the cost for those who wouldn't need it. They also were concerned about reports of the feature causing interference on digital channels.
For the owners of low-power stations, the problem raises concerns over public safety, potentially depriving viewers in remote areas of an important information lifeline.
And they say it will affect their bottom line. "If we are cut off from any more of the audience, we're going to go out of business," said Greg Herman, vice president of technology for the CBA.