- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The big DTV moment is here - like New Year’s Eve, labor pains or the millennium. After months of hand-holding public service announcements, intense how-to workshops, television specials and confusion over discount coupons, Americans will finally get their DTV.

This is it.

For all the dramatic run-up, the changeover from analog to digital broadcast signals is not a single, throw-the-switch moment. It will occur throughout Friday at the discretion of the nation’s TV stations, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

And there is a cultural moment involved. For once, the young are not leading the charge when it comes to upgrading technology. The proverbial old folks rule.

The elderly are the most prepared for the switch, according to numbers released Thursday by Neilsen, which has tracked trends since February. Slightly more than 1 percent of the population older than 55 are “completely unready,” compared to 2.4 percent of the general populace.

“Younger, African-American and Hispanic homes are disproportionately unready, while the elderly are the most ready,” the Neilsen study said.

The Albuquerque-Santa Fe area in New Mexico is the least prepared, with 7.5 percent of homes unprepared; Oklahoma City is the most prepared, with only 0.5 percent of homes unready.

“It’s not the end of the world if your converter box is not up and running yet,” said Don West, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., technology consultant who is offering free switch counseling to the technology challenged.

“But I am working with people who know how to turn a computer on, and that’s it. They’re pretty worried. We have lots of retirees around here, and a no-frills TV is their own source of news and information. This is very real concern to them.”

For all the hubbub about the switch, Mr. West said it still could be a work in progress.

“Some stations have already switched, and their new digital signals are inconsistent. Some people don’t have their converter box yet, or have procrastinated. I’m going to follow what happens in the next week, because it’s going to be interesting,” he said.

It’s not that Congress, the FCC and the Commerce Department haven’t tried to prepare the nation to leap from the era of “I Love Lucy” to crisp new versions of reality TV. The federal government has shelled out $2.1 billion for “DTV readiness” programs and mobilized volunteers from AmeriCorps and other organizations to help people install converter boxes or upgrade antennas.

Commerce has distributed 59 million discount coupons for the converters. The coupons will continue to be distributed through July 31 and will be good for 90 days after they have been received.

Some speculate that DTV will increase viewing audiences.

“As the dust settles after the transition, we expect that more viewers will be drawn to the superior pictures and sound that free digital television technology offers over analog. Especially with more and more stations providing high definition programming for free over the air, our audience numbers will surely begin to reflect that,” said Linda Yun, spokeswoman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

c Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

Those who don’t speak English are particularly at risk, however.

“We are concerned about these vulnerable Americans, who have some difficulty understanding this very technical issue and what to do about it,” said Mark Lloyd, vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Mr. Lloyd said the southwestern parts of the country are less prepared than other regions, citing Houston, Albuquerque and Los Angeles.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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