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July 15, 2008

On Media - Heard about the switch?

There will be a historic moment in the not-too-distant future for the 10 percent of people still watching television with an antenna.

For those of you not hip to TV-tech terms, “over the air” is how broadcasters describe the way people who don’t have cable, satellite or digital television watch, using rabbit ears to bring in an analog signal. 

As you undoubtedly know if you’ve watched TV in the last few months, starting Feb. 17, that signal will cease to exist.

An unprecedented promotional campaign announcing the end of the analog signal is under way, so if you’re already tired of hearing about the switch, we’re sorry. If you watch TV, you’ll probably hear about the digital transition maybe a gazillion more times between now and February. Yet there still will be consumers who don’t take it seriously, and will undoubtedly be surprised when the time comes.

Before the term “rabbit ears” takes its rightful place in technology history — along with typewriter, turntable and rotary dial — broadcasters are bombarding you with reminders about the switch. 

Don’t laugh. There are a lot more folks who watch television this way than you might think. Nielsen estimates that 28 percent of homes in Louisville have at least one set not hooked up to cable or satellite, and are unprepared for digital.

There are people like Lowe and Sarah Sutherland, for instance, who watch TV and are content with the reception they get on local stations. Lowe, 52, says he and his 40-year-old wife are raising a toddler and typically watch PBS at night, adding that it’s never seemed like a good idea to get cable.

“We’ll probably wait until the last minute. I’m sure reception can be much better, but we’re satisfied with what we have,” he says, noting that he occasionally has to adjust the rabbit ears on his set. 

Sutherland says he’ll plan to pay the $60 for a converter box in February, but it may worry station execs that some — such as apartment dwellers with old sets, or those moving to a new residence — might just give up TV altogether.

So last Tuesday, the top brass from WAVE-TV, WLKY-TV and WDRB-TV gathered in the office of WHAS-TV’s Mark Pimentel and brainstormed ways to get through to the people who might wake up to blank screens early next year.

While the rest of us endure one of the most invasive promotional campaigns in history, local stations worry about those who might not take them seriously. The plan: beat everyone over the head with the info. 

Nielsen says there are 650,000 households and 1.1 million TV sets in the Louisville market. About 192,000 of those sets will be affected. In a market that’s already shrinking, retaining existing audiences is a top priority.

“Even 1 percent is too big,” Pimentel says, when asked about the effect of losing customers due to the switch. “It’s not a simple issue. When you look at all the people who used to have 12 o’clock flashing on their VCRs all the time, you understand.”

Of course, this change wasn’t the idea of local stations, and most are spending millions to upgrade equipment for the switch. Station executives understand it’s distressing for those who just want to turn on the television, tune in and watch.

“They don’t understand why — it’s because the government mandated it so they could make more money,” Pimentel says.

At some point in September, Louisville’s local stations are planning a test of the switch and will turn off their analog signals, probably at about 7:58 on a weeknight. For those whose sets aren’t prepared for the switch, the screen will be black for 10-15 seconds. The rest will see a message that their set passed the test.

Similar tests have been tried in other markets. In Orlando, where WLKY-TV’s ownership group, Hearst-Argyle, operates a station, a June test was considered successful. Why? Because of 360,000 households, only 501 people called an 800-number set up to field questions. Orlando has just 7 percent over-the-air viewers.

Some consumers may resist for technical reasons, others for economic ones. But the government is offering a $40 coupon so viewers can get a discount on the purchase of converter boxes, which retailers are selling for $59. In other words, it ain’t free.

But the cost of a converter box might seem worth it when all the local stations simultaneously test the switch in September. For those with TVs that aren’t equipped for the new signal, the screens will go blank. 

That ought to get their attention.  


Rick Redding writes about media and politics on his blog, http://thevillevoice.com