- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

I have cable TV in my kitchen. Yes, I’m a 24/7 news junkie. But I don’t have cable in the guest room, just an old-fashioned TV that gets several channels poorly. Thus began my experience with the Great Conversion.

When the federal government decided that broadcast TV stations must go totally digital, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense or trouble to put cable in the guest room or buy a new TV when the old one worked. So I was among the first to apply for a coupon that reduced the price of a converter box from $60 to $20. I scurried to a store as soon as the coupon arrived and proudly swooped up my little converter box.

It sat in the box on a shelf until 36 days, 12 hours and 45 minutes before the Great Conversion on June 12, when I decided, on a stormy morning, to plug it in.

Even though I love fooling with electronics - computers, DVD and VCR players, TVs, etc. - and have been doing it for years, I did a very un-American thing and read the instructions. I also watched an instructional video on TV.

I was never able to log onto the government’s Web site, www.DTV2009.gov (address not found), so I went to the Web site of my converter-box manufacturer, AccessHD, which boasts it has the most extensive range of approved converters in the industry! There I watched a tortured comic video of a charming, wiggling, yawning young lad of Asian heritage explaining how converters work to callers purporting to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, Clint Eastwood and George W. Bush.

I soon had the box unpacked, the cables plugged in, the channels set and scanned. I was looking forward to the promised crystal-clear picture on at least four or five channels.

I got a Spanish-language station, but the picture kept freezing or the screen would go black. Then I would get a no-signal announcement and was advised onscreen to check the antenna connections - and if that didn’t work, to call an 800 number.

The connections were fine. I went back online and found a disclaimer I had never before seen. It turns out that all too frequently the old antenna won’t work. I was advised to buy a new antenna. The cheapest was $49.99. The most expensive was $129.99 and called for $40 worth of accessories such as mounts and cables. This seemed to defeat the purpose. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy a new TV?

I decided to use my old TV for Spanish-speaking guests and for a DVD player and followed the directions in the converter-box manual for connecting to a DVD player.

Nothing but the black screen of oblivion, with the occasional spurt of Spanish from an intense soap opera.

I called the 800 number and was laboriously directed to call another number, 1-888-225-5322. This is the government-sponsored DTV Hotline and Federal Communication Commission Consumer Center. I got through to a real person, who told me to connect the antenna to the DVD player. But there is no such input point, and the advice didn’t make much sense anyway.

I called back, several times, and always got through to people who said they worked for organizations helping the Federal Communications Commission with the Great Conversion. They all dutifully took down my name, phone number and ZIP code and promised someone would call me. I’m still waiting.

The conversion program has been well publicized, to the point that the government ran out of coupons and the deadline was extended. But I am worried about many elderly people and invalids whose rabbit-ear antennas will not work and who would be defeated by the ordeal. Will they lose their access to the joys (and pains) of television?

Personally, I chucked the whole thing and put a radio in the guest room. It works well and gets many stations, which are crystal clear, and did not require me to spend more money.

I can’t wait to see what the government does with health care.

Ann McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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