Hawaii will switch to digital TV faster than the rest of the country to make way for an endangered, volcano-dwelling bird.
Most of the state will switch to digital TV on Jan. 15, more than a month ahead of the nationwide mandatory conversion Feb. 17. Federal wildlife officials recommended hastening the transition so that the Hawaiian petrel's nesting season on the slopes of Maui's Haleakala volcano won't be disrupted by the destruction of the old analog transmission towers nearby.
The nesting season starts in February, and the towers are being torn down before then, with new towers set up at lower elevations on the island for the early switch.
The Hawaiian petrel is a nocturnal, seafaring bird with a chirp that has been compared to the sound of a yapping puppy. Wires injure the rare petrels and city lights disorient them, contributing to their decline.
Biologists don't have an accurate count of how many of the species remain, but they estimate that little more than 1,000 nest on Haleakala, their primary nesting area. The birds don't breed outside of Hawaii.
The earlier date means TV viewers in Hawaii who receive programming through an antenna have less time to get the converter box they'll need to receive digital over-the-air signals. Cable and satellite viewers are not affected by the switch to digital TV.
The government is providing two $40 coupons per household to help defray the cost of converter boxes. About 17,000 out of 424,000 Hawaii households will need one, said Mike Rosenberg, president and general manager of KITV.
"We will have issues here based on the terrain of the Hawaiian Islands. There might be some people on the fringes who get a signal on analog who might lose a digital transmission," Rosenberg said. "We're making our best efforts to duplicate the signal."
A digital test run in Wilmington, N.C., resulted in similar problems, with many complaints coming from viewers of the city's NBC affiliate who were previously covered by the station's analog broadcast. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has said a smaller digital footprint may affect as many as 15 percent of television markets in the U.S.
"Our goal is to help consumers prepare as much as possible," said Mary Diamond, FCC spokeswoman for the digital transition. "We're all working to ensure a smooth transition."
Digital TV signals will bring viewers crisper pictures and clearer sound while freeing up airwaves for emergency responders, Rosenberg said.
All of Hawaii will switch over Jan. 15 except the island of Kauai, which is served by low-power translators and will make the transition at a later date.
As for the Hawaiian petrel, removal of the nearby transmission towers that sometimes interfere with their flight could help their populations grow, said Cathleen Bailey, a biologist at Haleakala National Park.
"It'll be much better for the birds," she said.