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More than 250,000 Southland households not ready for digital TV switch

If owners of older analog sets don't get converter boxes or cable or satellite service by Friday, their televisions will just show a blue screen.

June 11, 2009|David Colker and Tiffany Hsu

Southern California is home to the major TV producers and studios, but when it comes to getting ready for Friday's transition to all-digital broadcasts, we're among the nation's top slackers.

The Los Angeles region has more than 250,000 TV households still not ready for the transition and is the sixth least prepared of Nielsen's 56 viewing regions, according to statistics released Wednesday by the ratings company.

If these viewers with older analog TVs don't install converter boxes -- or get cable or satellite service -- their sets will no longer be able to show programming from most of the nation's over-the-air broadcast stations.

"What these people will get on many stations is just a blue screen," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who has been doing several public appearances to warn the unprepared.

Nationally, 2.8 million homes aren't set for the TV signal change; that group skews younger, African American and Latino.

"I think it has to do with income," said Nielsen Senior Vice President Steve McGowan.

Getting a digital TV can cost at least several hundred dollars, and a subscription to cable or satellite services usually costs $45 a month or more.

The cheapest alternative by far is a converter box at a one-time charge of about $40 and up, and that can be offset by a government coupon that subsidizes much of the cost.

Coupon requests have been running to about 100,000 a day, according to the Commerce Department. Local electronics stores also said interest in the boxes had greatly increased as the deadline loomed.

"We know there are a lot of people out there who wait until the last minute to file income tax, study for an exam," Locke said. "This is the same kind of thing."

Viewers in the 18-to-34 age range probably are less aware of the coming change or just don't care because they rely less on television for entertainment.

"There is a direct correlation with age and the amount of time spent watching TV," McGowan said.

Devon Dunlap, 24, of Studio City works in the television industry but hadn't realized that the transition was coming until she saw a public service announcement during the Los Angeles Lakers NBA finals game Tuesday night.

"I'm not actually a big television watcher," said Dunlap, who works in postproduction on reality TV shows.

She hasn't decided what she's going to do about her soon-to-be-blank TV, a pre-digital Panasonic that was passed down through her family. ("It's very boxy and probably about as old as I am.")

Dunlap might not do anything at all and instead watch TV shows on her computer. "With the Internet you can watch just about anything online," she said.

Locke said the unplugging of traditional broadcast television might be especially strong in the West.

"Maybe it has to do with people being so tech-savvy there, using alternative means to get video entertainment," he said.

On the other side of the age spectrum was Billy Weaver, 71, who had an unconverted TV in his South Los Angeles bedroom that he used to watch his favorite shows, "Family Feud" and "Judge Judy."

With acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael J. Copps on hand to observe -- he was in town to promote readiness -- workers installed a converter box on the set.

Weaver thought the picture quality was better after the installation. "I'm quite sure I will watch more TV now," he said.

The number of local unprepared folks works out to nearly 4.5% of households in the Nielsen-designated viewing area, which includes L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Topping the national list is the Albuquerque-Santa Fe area, where about 7.6% of homes aren't prepared. The only other California region in the top 10 is the Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto area, which ranks third with about 4.6% unprepared. Other areas in the top 10 include Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, Phoenix and Houston.

Nielsen based these findings, as it does its ratings, on the 20,000 homes it has wired across the nation. Signals that the company receives from a home allow it to determine whether television reception there has gone digital, McGowan said. On Friday, when the still-unprepared TV viewers get the blue screen, their sets might use one last gasp of analog to help them out.

In some areas, TV stations for a limited time will show an analog text message along the bottom of the screen with a toll-free telephone help number staffed by the FCC.

Copps said the agency cranked up its call centers Wednesday to operate 24 hours a day until at least Monday. The Commerce Department gave the agency $10 million to help fund the service.

But some people might use the transition as an opportunity to give up on broadcast television, at least temporarily.

Graphic designer Robert Perry, 39, of San Francisco watches TV on an analog RCA that he doesn't plan to convert.

"I live alone, so if I want to watch something, whether I'm on my iPod or at my computer, it's just me I have to worry about," Perry said.

"I think TV works for families and groups of people, but if it's just you by yourself, there's really no need for a TV."

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david.colker@latimes.com

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Times staff writers Andrea Chang and Alex Pham contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Going digital

Television stations will begin sending broadcasts Friday using digital signals, thereby turning analog TVs into big dust catchers unless their owners install converter boxes or subscribe to cable or satellite services. Here are some places to go for help:

RESOURCES

* On the Web: www.dtv.org

* Over the phone: (888) CALL-FCC ([888] 225-5322)

* To apply for a $40 coupon toward the purchase of a converter box: www.dtv2009.gov, or call (888) 388-2009

* To troubleshoot issues with antennas and signal strength: www.dtvanswers.com/dtv_antenna.html

Source: Times research

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