Even though Congress voted to delay the digital TV transition until June 12, nearly 40 percent of U.S. broadcasters have notified the Federal Communications Commission that they want to end analog broadcasting next week.
If the FCC allows the stations to switch, no one who relies on an over-the-air antenna or rabbit ears will be able to view them. Viewers will need to purchase and install an analog-to-digital converter box. (Anyone currently using a cable or satellite set-top box, or receiving a signal with a digital-ready TV will not be affected.)
The FCC's website's says 491 stations have asked permission to convert to digital-only broadcasting on Feb. 17, the date stations had originally been expected to transition from analog. An additional 190 stations have already terminated or will terminate analog broadcasts before Feb. 17, as part of a pre-arranged agreement with the FCC.
Of those stations seeking to terminate analog broadcasts early, 105 are PBS stations. Many of the stations serve smaller markets such as Burlington-Plattsburgh, Vt.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Mobile, Ala.-Pensacola, Fla.; and Oklahoma City. You can see the full list here or at the FCC's website.
Now that broadcasters have alerted the FCC of their intentions, the applications are under review to determine if early termination will be allowed in each case. The FCC could deny a request for several reasons.
"We're looking at the percentages of households that receive TV over the air in a given market, the Nielsen numbers of how well-prepared an areas is, and whether or not the whole market is going (digital), leaving viewers without any source of news," FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield told TVGuide.com. "We're also looking into risk factors, such as high numbers of low-income or non-English-speaking families in those areas."
The stations that applied to flip the switch early will begin airing ads today to inform viewers that they will be terminating analog broadcasts on Feb. 17. The broadcasters must run 120 ads before then.
Once the Feb. 17 switch happens, any broadcasters who wish to terminate analog broadcast before June 12 must follow the FCC's previous guidelines. Those guidelines include airing four ads a day for 30 days, making March 14 the first possible date for termination after Feb. 17.
Wigfield encouraged TV viewers to prepare, whether or not their area is affected now.
"It is confusing, but the best thing you can do is get prepared," Wigfield said. "Many people still don't have coupons, and there's still a waiting list for that. If you have a [converter] box and haven't hooked it up, get it set up, or try to get one set up as soon as possible."
Converter boxes can be purchased at most electronics stores, and range in price from $40 to $70. The government established a coupon program to curb the costs to consumers, but that program's budget is maxed out. Although the boxes can be purchased without a coupon, a waiting list has been established. The list currently has about 3.7 million requests.