- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) | Nearly 800,000 calls were received by a federal hotline last week from people confused about the nationwide move on Friday to drop analog TV signals and broadcast only in digital.

The Federal Communications Commission said that about 317,450 calls went into the help line, 888/CALL-FCC, on Friday alone, the day analog signals were cut off. Another 102,000 came in Saturday by 6 p.m. Eastern time.

The total was still below the 600,000 to 3 million callers that the FCC in early March expected would call on transition day.

The move to all-digital was delayed from Feb. 17, and ramped-up efforts at spreading the word is credited with roughly halving the number of unprepared households since then. Nielsen Co. put the number of unready homes at 2.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the total television market, as of last Sunday.

FCC Acting Chairman Michael Copps said Saturday that if it were baseball, the digital transition would be close to home plate.

“We’re safe on third right now,” he said. He added that thousands of FCC staffers would continue to answer phones and help people whose TVs no longer work properly, at least through June.

“We all need a bit of patience and perseverance,” he said. “This is a momentous change, and it’ll take time to get it right.”

About a third of Friday’s calls to the FCC were about federal coupons to pay for digital converter boxes, an indication that at least 100,000 people didn’t have the equipment to receive digital signals.

Another third of the calls were handled by agents, and 30 percent of those were about how to operate the converter boxes. The FCC said most of the converter box questions were resolved when callers were told to re-scan the airwaves for digital frequencies.

More than 20 percent of the live calls were about reception issues. Antennas can be fickle, because digital signals travel differently than analog ones.

A weakly received analog channel might be viewable through some static, but channels broadcast in the digital language of ones and zeros are generally all or nothing.

“People just needed to upgrade their antenna or return the lower-quality one for stronger antennas,” said Debbie Byrd, an FCC staffer who had three visitors to her Saturday help session at a library in the south-central Los Angeles area.

A majority of the 100 million U.S. households with TV sets were not affected by the drop of analog signals, because they receive them through their cable or satellite company.

As of Saturday, the FCC said 20 TV stations that had been on the air went dark because they had not set up their digital broadcast equipment yet.

The largest volume of calls to the FCC on Friday came from the Chicago area, followed by Dallas-Ft. Worth, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The National Association of Broadcasters said that 278 stations it surveyed nationwide got 35,500 calls on Friday, and the vast majority were resolved by re-scanning.

The Commerce Department reported a last-minute rush for the $40 converter box coupons: It received 319,990 requests Thursday, nearly four times the daily average for the past month, and another 428,198 requests on Friday, for about 1.5 million since Monday. In all, the government has mailed coupons for almost 60 million converter boxes.

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