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Most local stations going ahead with digital TV transition

By: Jeff Richgels and Bill Novak, The Capital Times

Most stations in the Madison market are going ahead with the transition from analog to digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, even though an extension of the transition date to June 12 is all but a done deal.

The bill, which awaits only the signature of supporter President Barack Obama, allows stations to go earlier than June 12 if they desire. Hundreds of stations are expected to transition early, according to multiple media reports.

The Federal Communications Commission says 61 percent of TV stations (1,089) should be able to turn off their analog signal before June 12 if they choose without causing interference to other stations, and "most" of the remaining 700 or so stations "may" also be able to do so, reported.

WKOW-TV is going forward on Feb. 17, according to a press release posted by WKOW on its Web site, as are WISC-TV and NBC15. MyMadisonTV, which is a sister station to WISC, also would go ahead on Feb. 17, said Tom Bier, WISC-TV station manager. NBC15 also is going forward then, the station said on its 6 p.m. newscast Wednesday night.

FOX 47 is uncertain if it will switch on Feb. 17 or after, "but we'll announce it on air within the next couple of days," chief engineer Kerry Maki told The Capital Times.

At WHA-TV21, the public television station in Madison, both analog and digital signals are being sent right now, so people with analog TVs still will get public television after Feb. 17, at least for several weeks, before the station goes all-digital sometime in March.

Broadcasting in both analog and digital presents extra costs to stations. Bier didn't have an exact figure but said it was a few thousand dollars per month.

And while Nielsen reported that as of Feb. 1, 5.1 percent of U.S. households are "completely unready" for the digital transition, government figures indicate that less than 1 percent are unready here.

"We're comfortable that Madison is one of the markets that's really ready," Bier said. "And at some point you have to make the switch. It's something we've been promising for over a year."

Those with cable, satellite or phone service TV will not be affected by the digital transition.

Those with no subscription TV service and an analog TV must get subscription TV, buy a new digital TV or get a converter box to continue receiving TV on an analog set after the digital transition.

The government has been offering two $40 coupons per household for the converter boxes, which cost about $40 to $60. But the program ran into various problems, and there currently is a waiting list, although a coupon is not necessary to buy a converter box.

According to government figures passed on by Bier, as of Jan. 29 just 6,219, or 0.34 percent, of households in the 11-county Madison "Designated Market Area" are on the waiting list for government coupons. And just 3,007 of those households have only analog TV -- the others also have TVs that are ready for the digital transition.

The bottom line is that, based on those figures, less than 0.2 percent of the households are at risk of losing TV on Feb. 17.

Of course, there likely are households that have done nothing so far and also are at risk, Bier acknowledged.

"You don't know how many," Bier said. "There probably will be those types of situations whenever we go, whether it's March 1 or June 12. The practical matter is: Will it ever be guaranteed to be 100 percent of people ready?"

Because they know some people will be caught unprepared whenever the transition happens, stations are making plans to help those people.

"Obviously we want people to watch television," Bier said.

WISC plans to take analog programming off the air about 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 and replace it with a screen that states that analog broadcasting will end at midnight and anyone with questions should call a number that will be posted, Bier said.

"We'll have a phone bank of people here to help people through that," he said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., author of the delay bill, is encouraging broadcasters not to rush en masse to pull the plug on analog before June 12, reported.

Rockefeller is urging TV stations to "put consumers first." By that, he said he meant: "While broadcasters are still permitted to move forward on February 17, and some will do so, I hope that many will think of the needs of their customers and carefully weigh their options. This bill gives them an opportunity to stay the course through to June 12 until more help can be put in place."

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps was happy with the delay, reported.

"I welcome congressional passage of the DTV Delay Act," he said in a statement. "It has long been clear to me -- and it's even clearer since I became acting FCC chairman two weeks ago -- that the country is not prepared to undertake a nationwide transition in 12 days without unacceptably high consumer dislocation.

"The additional four months provided by the law affords urgently needed time for a more phased transition, including a consumer-friendly converter box coupon program, stepped-up consumer outreach and support -- particularly for vulnerable populations -- and dealing with coverage, antenna and reception issues that went too long unaddressed."


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