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Retiring the rabbit ears

Digital-only TV arrives in February. Local officials must be prepared for some static.

September 11, 2008

The biggest change to television broadcasting since the introduction of cable is coming Feb. 17, when 1,800 local stations turn off their analog transmissions and broadcast only in digital. The benefits include crisper pictures and more channels for the 17 million or so households that rely on rabbit ears or antennas. Of course, those benefits will flow only to viewers equipped for the switch, with either digital sets or converter boxes. And despite a decade of hype about digital TV, some advocacy groups for minorities and senior citizens warn that many people will be caught unprepared.

On Monday, broadcasters in Wilmington, N.C., gave the rest of the country a preview of the switch to digital. The five full-power local stations stopped airing programs on their analog channels at noon, prompting more than 1,000 residents to call for help from the stations or the Federal Communications Commission. Most of their problems were easy to solve, and only a handful hadn't heard about the switch. Yet their experience provides a warning to larger markets such as Los Angeles, with about 10 times as many viewers who rely on over-the-air TV as Wilmington has residents: Even an intense, four-month campaign won't be enough to prepare everyone.

That means city and county officials, in tandem with local broadcasters and TV programmers, should step up efforts on two fronts: spreading the word about the analog cutoff, and finding help for those who have trouble adapting. Even if the city does as much as Wilmington did, thousands of L.A. residents are likely to see their TVs go blank. City Councilman Tony Cardenas has proposed including information on the switch in every bill or message sent by the city to residents, which would help. But it's no simple matter to figure out whether you need a converter box, which one to buy and how to obtain the federal subsidy for it. As the FCC discovered in Wilmington, it's best to recruit grass-roots groups that can give hands-on help to seniors, low-income families and others most likely to be flummoxed by the task.

The FCC, which paid firefighters in Wilmington to help distressed TV viewers, plans to arrange the same kind of education and support in Los Angeles and 79 other markets with numerous over-the-air TV watchers. But local officials shouldn't wait for the feds to lead on this issue. Wilmington showed that the digital transition is too big a leap for some people, many of them elderly residents for whom TV is a vital source of information, entertainment and companionship. It's not too early to start lining up volunteers to keep viewers connected and to quickly reconnect the ones who will undoubtedly be cut off.

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