The Digital TV Transition The Digital TV Transition

By 11:59 pm on Tuesday, more than one-third of full-power broadcasters in the U.S. will no longer be transmitting an analog signal.

A total of 641 stations will go all-digital on Feb. 17, the original date of the digital transition. Congress then postponed the switch until June 12, fearing too many viewers weren't prepared. Among the lawmakers' reasons for the delay was the maxed-out budget of government's converter-box coupon program.

Despite the delay, the FCC granted requests on a case-by-case basis to broadcasters who wanted to pull the plug sooner. The most populous markets where many or all of the major-network stations are cutting analog service include San Diego and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; and  La Crosse and Madison, Wis. To help with the latest round of confusion, the Federal Communications Commission is dispatching staff members to help viewers in 72 of the affected markets.

"This is not just about whether people can watch their favorite reality show," acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said in a statement. "It's about whether consumers have access to vital emergency alerts, weather, news and public affairs. "We are trying to make the best of a difficult situation. While this staggered transition is confusing and disruptive for some consumers, the confusion and disruption would have been far worse had we gone ahead with a nationwide transition on Tuesday."

It's difficult to estimate how many viewers will be left without TV after Tuesday's switch, but Nielsen Co. told the Associated Press that 5.8 million U.S. households (5.1 percent of all homes), were not ready for the analog shutdown. It's unclear how many of those homes are in early-shutdown areas.

Meanwhile, TV viewers are still encouraged to outfit their homes with digital converter boxes, and getting a government coupon may again be a possibility. The stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed Tuesday allocates an additional $650 million to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees the converter-box coupon program. The additional funding should help clear the backlog of requests for coupons.