MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Thousands of people have been calling for technical support today. They're the ones who have just experienced the switch to digital television. Or, given that they're looking for help, maybe they aren't experiencing it. Congress has approved delay of the full nationwide switch until June. But last night, more than 400 stations pulled the switch anyway, shutting off the analog signals they've been transmitting for decades.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: In Providence, Rhode Island today, David Favicchio was glued to the phone because the calls were coming...
NORRIS: Definitely in the hundreds, more close to the thousands. There were 20 of us here and every time you'd hang up, it'd ring again.
BERKES: Three of the four network TV affiliates in Providence flipped the digital switch last night. So, thousands of people dependent on rabbit ears or rooftop antennae lost those stations, unless they were prepared. Many were not, judging by the calls Favicchio received at the call center set up by Rhode Island TV stations.
NORRIS: There's really three sets of people - people who either don't have the box, or don't read the directions with the box. The second set are people who have the boxes set up, but their antennas aren't UHF and VHF compatible; therefore, they can't get all the channels. And the third set of people have everything set up, but specific channels aren't coming in.
BERKES: They may be tuning in the old analog channels, but the digital channels are different. That's actually the biggest problem nationwide, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which logged close to 7,000 calls for help this morning.
Many frustrated viewers didn't realize they simply needed to run the scan function on their digital TVs or converter boxes so that digital channels would be recognized. In Casper, Wyoming, this morning, there were only four calls for help to Mark Nalbone, who operates four stations broadcasting in four cities.
NORRIS: We've been running announcements for over a year. And the week leading up to February 17th, our stations were running between 125 and 175 announcements every day. And the biggest complaint, honestly, that we get from people is they're tired of listening to the announcements.
BERKES: That's probably due to the fact that 92 percent of the people in the Casper television market watch cable or satellite TV. They're already digital. Also, the FCC made sure that at least one major network affiliate in every TV market continued to broadcast analog signals, so that local news, weather and emergency information would continue for those not ready to switch, or those confused by the February and June digital deadlines.
The confusion had critics calling the whole digital transition a mess, but yesterday's switch...
NORRIS: Has created a sort of rolling transition in which communities began losing selected stations, but not every station.
BERKES: And that's a good thing, says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
NORRIS: And that, of course, has given them a very real-world signal, letting them know that, look, you're going to have to take steps to make this transition work for you.
BERKES: The Leadership Conference has been working on a smooth digital transition for poor people and minorities. The biggest problems are expected in June, when the rest of the nation's TV stations turn off their analog signals for good. That's also when viewers in the biggest TV markets will be affected, including markets more dependent on over-the-air analog signals.
Joel Kelsey tracks the digital transition for Consumers Union.
NORRIS: Certainly, we avoided widespread consumer confusion by delaying the transition from February until June, and avoided a lot of problem areas like, for example, Dallas or Houston, where over 20 percent of the homes rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts.
BERKES: And Kelsey warns that it's too early to say how today's transition worked out.
NORRIS: Many of the broadcasters who made the transition today didn't do it until midnight. So a lot of viewers won't be tuning in until a little bit later tonight. We're assuming that we'll see a bit more problems bubbling up around prime time.
BERKES: And many stations and the FCC have call centers standing by.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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