SCOTT SIMON, host:
Just before the stroke of midnight last night, an era in broadcasting came to an end - rabbit ears and static. All full-power television stations in the U.S. are now required to end their analog broadcasts and begin transmitting digitally. But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, despite preparations and all the public announcements, there are still people whose TV sets have gone dark.
LAURA SYDELL: The ABC affiliate in San Francisco has made many announcements about the digital transition. But just hours before the switch, station manager Valerie Staab says KGO ran a last minute alert that could only be seen by people still watching analog television.
Ms. VALERIE STAAB (KGO-TV, San Francisco): And so right now it has continuous crawl on it that basically says if you can see this crawl, then you have to take action after midnight tonight.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
LAURA: ABC 7. This is Laura.
SYDELL: After the crawl started rolling, the phones started ringing.
LAURA: Oh, yes. Thank you. Yes. Are you having any issues with your DTV transition?
SYDELL: The calls came in steadily at the station. But Staab feels things are going pretty smoothly, in part because of the extra four months she had to prepare. The initial DTV transition date of February 17th was delayed till yesterday. Her experience seems to mirror that at stations in other parts of the country.
But at the Self-Help Center for the Elderly in San Francisco's Chinatown, volunteers there were getting as many as five calls a minute on Friday. Many of the calls were from people who had purchased the converter boxes that allowed them to watch the new digital signals on their old analog TVs.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
Ms. CAROLYN NING(ph) (Volunteer): (Unintelligible)
SYDELL: Carolyn Ning is a volunteer who's been answering calls.
Ms. NING: Okay, this gentleman, he said he bought a converter box and also an antenna. He needs somebody to go over to his place to do the installation for him.
SYDELL: He doesn't understand how to do it?
Ms. NING: Yes. He said he tried to do it himself but he, yeah, it didn't work.
SYDELL: Most Americans won't be affected by the transition to digital, either because they have digital televisions or they have a cable or satellite connection. But millions of people - largely the elderly, low income, and immigrants - still have old TVs. They need converter boxes. Eighty-year-old Lai Wen Hua(ph) lives with his 75-year-old wife in a tiny one room apartment with one old TV and no cable. He does not speak English.
Lai learned about the transition on local Chinese language stations where he gets all his news and entertainment. Lai has several remote controls for his TV. Only one works with the box. Without realizing it, Lai used the wrong remote and the box stopped working.
The Self-Help Center sent Douglas Liang(ph) to help him.
Mr. DOUGLAS LIANG: See, he used this control to change to channel six.
SYDELL: It's the different remotes. That's…
Mr. LIANG: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
SYDELL: Liang fixes the problem.
Liang anticipates coming back because he doesn't think the octogenarian really understands how his remote works. Lai may initially struggle with the transition. But the impetus to do it came in part from a desire to better serve individual communities. The digital signals will give each local station several more broadcast channels. One of the biggest supporters of the conversion is Federal Communications Commissioner and acting chairman Michael Copps.
Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (FCC): My goodness. I mean talk about advancing the public interest, that's just wonderful. Local music, local sports, local political events, civic issues, community affairs, you name it.
SYDELL: Speaking from the FCC in Washington, Copps says the commission has staffed phone banks with 4,000 people to field calls. By midday yesterday, they had received more than 100,000 calls. One of the biggest problems was walking people through the process of getting their TVs to recognize the new digital channels. They will continue to provide support to community groups that give assistance to those still struggling with the technology. And if it still doesn't work, well, there's always radio.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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