SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. If you're one of millions of Americans who just isn't prepared for the transition to digital TV, you have an extra four months. Congress voted to delay the switch until June so it could inject more money into a program that helps viewers buy digital converter boxes for their older, analog TVs. But as Joel Rose reports, some viewers may find that even with the box, they'll still lose reception.
JOEL ROSE: For months, TV stations have been airing public service announcements, like this one produced by the National Association of Broadcasters, touting the benefits of digital television.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man: If you're watching through an antenna TV at home, DTV can give you crystal-clear pictures and sound plus more free channels. And all an older set like this needs is a converter box that pick up digital channels.
ROSE: Millions of Americans have signed up for government-sponsored coupons to help pay for their converter boxes. Dooley Rush bought hers at a Wal-Mart near her house in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Falls Church, Virginia. Rush took the box home and plugged it into the antenna on top of her TV.
Ms. DOOLEY RUSH (Falls Church, VA): And the picture came up crystal clear. It was thrilling until about five to seven minutes later, when the picture started to pixelate. Or we would get a bar in the middle of the screen that said "no signal."
ROSE: Rush says she only gets uninterrupted reception about half of the time. To make her reception any better, Rush thinks she would have to put a rooftop antenna on her house - an expensive rooftop antenna.
Ms. RUSH: That's kind of not what they advertised. That's kind of not what the message has been. You slap the box in, and life will be good.
Mr. BARRY GOODSTADT (Independent Analyst): They made it sound that easy - but it isn't. It really isn't that easy.
ROSE: Independent analyst Barry Goodstadt says according to his research, there are about 15 million households in the U.S. that only get their TV signals over the airwaves. And he thinks many of them are going to lose channels.
Mr. GOODSTADT: Seventy-two percent have indoor antennas, and those folks are going to have serious problems getting reception.
ROSE: The reason, says Goodstadt, is that digital TV signals behave differently than analog signals. Digital signals are more susceptible to interference from trees, buildings, low-flying aircraft, even the wind. And when digital signals get weak, the picture doesn't just get fuzzy - it drops out altogether. But broadcasters say most viewers should be able to watch digital TV without buying new antennas.
Mr. DAVID DONOVAN (President, Association for Maximum Service Television): When we did our testing, and we did an awful lot of testing before this system was adopted, it performed better than analog.
ROSE: David Donovan is president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, an industry trade group that helped come up with the standards for the digital transition. In the brave new world of digital TV, Donovan says you may need to employ a very old-school fix to improve your reception.
Mr. DONOVAN: Move your antenna just a bit. When anyone is trying to receive a signal over the air, you do have issues. You have it with your cell phones. Once you get the spot, you're fine.
ROSE: Donovan thinks a fairly small number of viewers are going to lose reception. But the Federal Communications Commission's new acting chairman is worried the number will be more substantial. Last week, Michael Copps addressed the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee.
Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Acting Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): Some consumers, through no fault of their own, are going to lose one or more channels as a result of the transition. That we did not understand this better long ago, through better analysis and through tests and through trial runs, is, to me, nothing short of mind-boggling.
ROSE: The FCC did some in-house testing, and its engineers came away with fairly encouraging results. The problem, says analyst Barry Goodstadt, is that their tests assumed that most people have outside antennas.
Mr. GOODSTADT: I think the FCC's analysis was flawed. The standard is based upon an assumption that all consumers who want to receive over-the-air television have a rooftop, directional antenna at 10 meters, or 33 feet above ground. And that's not the case for most people.
ROSE: Some lawmakers say they're already getting complaints from angry constituents. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says people shouldn't have to pay for something they've always gotten free.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Ordinary people did not request this transition. To deny people something that they have had for decades - to say, sorry, you're going to lose that - that would be incomprehensible. We can't allow that to happen.
ROSE: Sanders drafted a bill that would require cable and satellite TV providers to offer a bare-bones package of local channels for $10 per month. But some disappointed viewers seem ready to give up on their TV sets altogether. Jessica Collins(ph) of Albuquerque says she did everything she was supposed to but still gets lousy reception through her new converter box.
Ms. JESSICA COLLINS (Albuquerque, New Mexico): I've sort of resorted to just not turning on the television, now that I went to all the trouble to get the converter box and everything else. It sort of just sits there in the corner of my living room, and I use it to watch movies. But I don't even want to ever turn it on.
ROSE: Like a lot of younger viewers, Collins says she is more likely to watch TV shows on her laptop. The number of households that rely on over-the-air signals is already falling. And the transition to digital TV - whenever it comes - could drive even more viewers to one of the alternatives. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.