BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week was the week the country was supposed to switch altogether and forever from analog TV broadcast to digital. But even though Congress and the FCC began talking about a transition in 1996 and the legislation that outlined the changeover was signed three years ago, we, the people, weren't ready. So Congress postponed the deadline from this Tuesday to June 12th. Still, more than 400 broadcasters in smaller markets did opt to turn off their analog signals and switch to digital broadcast, and they launched furious public education campaigns to pave the way. Too little, too late. Many viewers woke up this week to blank televisions. Washington Post reporter Kim Hart has been covering the transition. Kim, welcome to the show.
KIM HART: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So could you tell me again why we're doing this?
KIM HART: Sure. Well, this is all part of a plan that was designed to reclaim the spectrum that the over-the-air broadcasters and network broadcasters have been using for over half a century. The reason they wanted to do that is because they wanted to give them back to public safety organizations so that they could use them for their first responders’ communication networks, as well as make some money for the government and sell them at an auction to wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, what we're talking about, obviously, is switching from over-the-air broadcast, once accessible to anyone who has a bent coat hanger and a TV, to digital reception, which most people get through cable or satellite receivers. How many people still rely on the rabbit ears?
KIM HART: Well, anywhere between about 10 million and 20 million households, especially in rural areas. Internet doesn't reach all the way out to where they live, and in some markets this is their main gateway to information, local news and emergency notifications.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write that “the digital-transition bill was born amid sniping between Republicans and Democrats, which time and again complicated its implementation.”
KIM HART: They delegated different parts of the program to help consumers get prepared to different agencies. The Federal Communications Commission was in charge of getting all the technical aspects ready and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration [LAUGHS] - they were charged with running the converter box coupon program, which basically gave consumers 40-dollar coupons to help offset the cost of a converter box. The main consternation was over how much money was really going to be available for consumers to buy converter boxes. Republicans wanted it to be specifically for low income viewers and Democrats wanted it to be open to everyone. They compromised on letting it be open to everyone who wanted a converter box, but they didn't raise the amount of funding going to that program, so there ended up being a shortfall. That’s when the real concern began about, okay, maybe the country really isn't ready to make this switch just yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are they going to put more money into it?
KIM HART: Yes, the stimulus package does contain several hundred million dollars that will be put, in part, towards the converter box coupon program, and the NTIA has said that once they get that money they'll be able to clear the backlog of coupon requests in a matter of weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the government decided to respond to this mess by doing the transition in a kind of piecemeal fashion. Some stations will use the extended June deadline. Some turned off their analog earlier this week. Can you tell us what the reaction to the process has been?
KIM HART: It’s been mixed. The day of the switch, on the 17th itself, the FCC received nearly 30,000 calls. The people who are most affected have been elderly viewers, who haven't touched their TV setup in years, non-English speakers – you know, it’s confusing to people who speak English, [LAUGHS] and let alone trying to translate it and figure out what that means for their TV set – as well as low-income. You know, they're the ones who can't afford to say, oh, well, maybe I'll just go ahead and switch to cable. And with the economy being in the shape that it is, a lot of people have been considering dropping their cable and satellite service altogether, so the number of people affected has actually increased.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kim Hart is staff writer for The Washington Post. Kim, thanks very much.