Monday was a bad day for Vivian C. Brown of Wilmington, N.C.. The 79 year-old missed her programs as Wilmington became the first city in the U.S. to make the switch from analog to digital TV.
Depending on who you talk to, the Wilmington switchover was either a resounding success, or a valuable learning experience. Regardless, the rest of the country will make the switch next February, and, based on the results in the test market, it looks like there may be a lot of work to do in the meantime.
The switchover worked — that much is undeniable. Analog television sets in Wilmington will no longer display a picture unless they’re connected to an analog-to-digital converter box.
Of more concern is the fact that over 1,000 Wilmington residents called the FCC help line over a two day period. While the FCC is quick to point out that 1,000 help calls represents less than 1% of the total Wilmington market, that number becomes problematic when applied to the entire nation.
According to a 2005 GAO study, over 21 million households rely exclusively on over-the-air television broadcasts. If just 1% of those households need assistance during the transition in February, that’s over 200,000 phone calls to the FCC help line — all of which would likely come one the first day.
Forget TV. Suddenly I’m wondering if the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure is prepared for this transition.
It’s not that Vivian Brown and other seniors weren’t aware of the transition. Brown used her government issued certificate to buy a converter box in a timely manner. But buying an analog-to-digital converter box and actually hooking it up to your TV are two different things. Especially when you’re 79 years old…and Wheel of Fortune is coming on in 5 minutes.
Brown told the LA Times:
“I’m a nervous wreck, just trying to get it going. … The way they told it on the TV all the time was you just hook it up to your antenna, it’s not that simple.”
Fortunately for Brown, the FCC had a plan. They called the fire department to help her get her TV hooked up.
And now, suddenly, I’m also worried about an outbreak of fires next February. “Sorry your house burned down, but there were some old people who needed to watch Jeopardy.”
Of course, this is no laughing matter. Elderly and lower income citizens depend on free broadcast TV as a vital source of news and information. As if to highlight this fact, the Wilmington transition was nearly delayed by an oncoming hurricane. Imagine how bad Katrina might have been if it had hit the day after the digital TV transition and thousands of people had been without a key source of emergency information.
To make matters worse, some rural areas will lose access to broadcast television entirely once the conversion is complete. I guess the FCC’s been too preoccupied with indecency issues to focus on things like public access.
There’s no telling what might happen when the switchover takes place nationwide. Of all of the possible scenarios I suspect that a “peaceful and orderly transition” is probably the least likely.
In the meantime, if you know an elderly person who is in danger of missing their programs because of this change, please take a moment to help them hook up their converter box. Your local fire department will thank you.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by Medialoper.