June 12: Catastrophe or calm?

Chris Forrester

This coming Friday night could be a nightmare for US viewers as around 1000 TV stations switch of their analogue signals for good. The US government has spent more than $2bn in subsidising converter set-top boxes, and in advertising to warn viewers of the imminent switch-over to digital transmissions. But the latest study, from Nielson, suggests that more than 12m homes are inadequately prepared.

The US has some 114m TV households, and Nielson says that more than 10% are either completely or partly unprepared for the changeover. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) admits that those most unprepared are the nation’s poor and vulnerable, the elderly and many non-English speaking families.

The FCC reckons that some 3m homes will suffer technical problems because of misaligned (or non-existent) aerials, or will discover that rain or even local traffic affects their digital signals. In the New York area alone, the Nielson study stated that 92,000 homes are wholly unprepared, and a massive 348,000 are partly unready.

President Obama, ahead of his Mid-East trip, warned that there could not be another delay, referring to the decision in February to postpone the final switch off.

“There are so many people who are always waiting until the last minute, whether it is college students doing term papers, or people filing taxes, or people like me who wait until Christmas Eve to do their shopping,” said the commerce secretary, Gary F. Locke, in an interview on Friday, speaking to the New York Times.

Sales of digital TV sets are up 32% this year, on an already buoyant 2008 – but stores are expecting another rush this coming weekend when people realise they’ve lost their favourite shows – and a boom time for aerial riggers and installers.