What’s on Your Mind, Sunshine: The Digital TV (DTV) transition

The director of communication at the St. Louis public television station, explained the major change in history during a tour of the station to high school students, “Today is the day that television stations broadcast from analog to digital. This is a day in history.”

Their expression: blank faces.

The above statement epitomizes how many Americans feel about the switch from analog to digital, that occured on June 12, 2009, at television stations across the nation. For many people in the younger demographic and their parents, they were already fully prepared for the switch, subscribing to outrageous monthly fees for premium cable channels. But what about all of the other citizens of this country, the ones that don’t start their days listening to pop tunes on MTV, track teeny-bopper sensation Miley Cyrus on the Disney channel, or determine whether to equip their children with rainboots on the Weather Channel? What about the rest of the nation?

That’s exactly what the people in membership, FCC representatives and of course, the lovely interns attempted to figure out bright and early in the morning at the station.

I came into the office that day, thinking my job would change from writing press releases or doing media analysis as the communications intern, to answering a few phone calls on how to re-adjust an antenna for quality reception. What I wasn’t prepared for were the multitudes of calls from the elderly who simply wanted to watch their favorite programs like PBS’ Donnybrook or PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, that they had been watching for decades.

The entire day was spent overhearing the other representatives tackle DTV calls, while attempting to explain where our towers are located (south of St. Louis, near Sunset Hills), giving numbers to G2 Communications and other companies that will go into St. Louis and Illinois residents’ houses to fix the problem, to explaining that our towers will be fully operational in August (18th to be exact).

And while it seems that these calls would be simple to answer, with the internet pulled up on the computer and a DTV Binder at the desk for troublshooting help, I’m sure the others, like myself, were not prepared for the personal stories shared that caused our hearts to break.

Like the 87 year-old man who had his antenna in an attic and couldn’t figure out how to auto-scan the channels to see which digital channels, if any, he was able to receive. OR, another senior-citizen man who couldn’t figure out whether he needed a new antenna or where the southernmost area of the TV room was to receive the best signal, and couldn’t hear my constant struggle to yell directions into the phone while his wife also yelled at him on the other end. OR, a younger couple in Jefferson County, MO. who didn’t have cable and was frusturated and distraught over the lack of reception of PBS and PBS Kids that both her, her husband, and her kids enjoyed. OR, another senior citizen man who lived in the city of St. Louis and didn’t have his converter box properly connected because he didn’t read the directions correctly because HE COULDN’T SEE THEM!

As if this isn’t enough to break someone’s heart into two because of the lack of help available to give, the sheer irony of the situation was that, EVERY PERSON WHO CALLED CHANNEL 9’S DIGITAL HOTLINE PURCHASED A CONVERTER BOX AND IN SOME INSTANCES, A NEW ANTENNA. and, they were excited to plug it in and use it, after storing it in their houses for months waiting for the government mandated digital transition.

As a journalist, I understand the reasons behind the switch from analog to digital, the amount of money saved by not running both an analog and digital signal, the improved picture and sound quality, and the other intricacies of the switch. But, this is isn’t about me or the people in the broadcast industry who understand what’s going on. This is for the high school students who, in their youth, had no idea about the transition, the people in small towns and unincorporated areas who can’t receive television signals, and the elderly- who either have a converter box and don’t know how to scan for channels, or who don’t even have people to help them figure out what to do. God Bless those Americans who spent 70+ years of their lives to make ours better and can’t even watch PBS programs that they have been watching all of their lives.

As I was speaking to my supervisor about the sheer craziness over the switch, she said something that literally almost brought me to tears. She was telling me how after work, she was going to her mother’s house to help scan the channels and get her TV to work, and having to explain to her how to use two different remotes (the television remote that put the TV set on channel 3 or 4, and the remote that came with the converter box to change the channels). I could feel her pain, and while my grandparents are passed away, I could share her frustrations- remembering teaching my grandparents how to work the new TV, or teaching my great-aunt how to use a universal remote.

The problem is for the people who are at a mental and physical loss as to how to get their television. Sadly, after reading the DTV binder and doing hefty research on the transition, my face is as blank as yours. I have no idea how to help the millions of people who just want their PBS station with a reasonably clear signal.

American’s just want their televisons back! And while we may not have all of the answers to this universal problem, it will get sorted out eventually. Like around August 18, 2009. A few months without television isn’t that bad is it? I’m guessing the only government conspiracy related to DTV transitions is the encouragement to spend more time outside and playing board games with the family, by default of course.

No one said change would be easy and the transition from analog to digital is just another example. Don’t worry Americans, like the Y2K uproar, we will get through this too.

*The comments and opinions expressed in this column are not representative of PBS or its affiliates and should not be associated with those stations in any respect.

Digital television (DTV) is televison displayed and delivered using digital technology. For more information regarding the switch and troubleshooting options, visit www.dtv.gov.

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