On Dec. 9, major Boston TV stations will interrupt their programs with a warning to thousands of viewers: Convert to digital TV soon, or you may get no TV at all.
As part of a last-ditch effort to prepare viewers for the end of analog broadcasts, the city's major TV stations will run a five-minute test, called a soft shutdown, that will let viewers know whether their sets are compatible with digital broadcasts.
"All the Boston stations right now are planning on it," said Deanna Elliott, vice president of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association. But Elliott added that technical details of the test, and exactly which stations will participate, are still being worked out.
Federal law requires all major TV stations to convert all over-the-air broadcasting to a new digital format on Feb. 17.
During the soft shutdown, viewers with digital television sets, or older sets connected to cable or satellite service, will see a message telling them they're ready to receive the new signals. Older analog sets receiving stations over the air will display a message telling viewers how to get ready for the February deadline.
Viewers of television station MyTV will get their wake-up call on Dec.1, when MyTV, a Derry, N.H., station that broadcasts in Boston on Channel 18, will permanently halt analog TV broadcasting and go all digital, two and a half months before the rest of the country.
"That is a way for all of the viewers in the marketplace to be able to tune in and see that all their TVs are ready to go," said Diane Sutter, president and chief executive of MyTV's owner, Shooting Star Broadcasting LLC.
Just about every major US television station is already broadcasting a digital signal along with the old-fashioned analog kind. But in February, analog broadcasting must stop, and all broadcast TV will be digital.
This will have no effect on the 85 percent of Americans who use cable or satellite TV service. But the remaining 15 percent must have a set with a digital tuner or purchase a digital converter box for about $60. Even homes with cable or satellite service often have spare TVs that pick up programs over the air. These sets will become useless without digital tuners. A federal program is providing households with up to two $40 coupons to be used toward the purchase of converter boxes.
The nation's broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission are racing to prepare for the transition. "There's a huge degree of consumer awareness that something's going to happen," said FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who was in Boston yesterday for a town meeting on the digital conversion at Emerson College. "What a lot of people don't know is how to make it happen for themselves."
McDowell said many consumers who are aware of the transition don't know how to hook up their converter boxes or how to choose the right kind of antenna to pick up digital signals. In addition, there are dozens of low-power TV stations, including eight in the Boston area, that are exempt from the changeover. To keep watching these channels, users will need converter boxes with an analog pass-through feature, but not every converter will include that feature.
McDowell's audience included representatives of the Boston chapter of the NAACP and the Boston Center for Independent Living, BCIL. Both organizations serve many elderly and disabled people who rely on over-the-air TV for news and emergency information. "We are concerned that some of our members will be left out if they are not educated," said BCIL community organizer Evelyne Milorin.
McDowell said the Boston TV market includes 2.4 million households. Of those, 123,000 get their TV programs entirely via over-the-air broadcasts.
Boston will join a number of cities that have conducted digital TV readiness tests. New York City's major TV stations conducted a two-minute test last month, while stations in Chicago ran tests on Wednesday during morning and news broadcasts.
More information on the digital transition is available at 1-888-225-5322. To get a coupon for a digital converter box, go to www.DTV2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009. Hearing-impaired users can call a TTY line at 1-877-530-2634.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.