Digital transition heats up hot line
300,000 calls Friday were lower than FCC estimatesLOS ANGELES — Nearly 700,000 calls were received by a federal hot line this week from people confused about the nationwide move on Friday to drop analog TV signals and broadcast only in digital.
The Federal Communications Commission said that about 317,450 calls went into the help line, 1-888-CALL-FCC, on Friday alone, the day analog signals were cut off.
That's far below the 600,000 to 3 million callers that the FCC expected in early March would call on transition day.
The move to all-digital was delayed from Feb. 17, and ramped up efforts at spreading the word is credited with roughly halving the number of unprepared households since then. Nielsen Co. put the number of unready homes at 2.8 million, or 2.5 percent of the total television market, as of last Sunday.
FCC Acting Chairman Michael Copps said Saturday that if it were baseball, the digital transition is now closer to home plate. "We're safe on third right now," he said.
He added that thousands of FCC staff would continue to answer phones and help people whose TVs no longer work properly, at least through June.
"We all need a bit of patience and perseverance," he said. "This is a momentous change and it'll take time to get it right."
Dozens of mostly Hispanic TV watchers visited and called the Mercy Center, a community center in the Bronx, N.Y., to get more help. A staff of three has been on hand seven days a week for the last month.
"Up to now, it's been people wanting the equipment," said Judith Criado, the director of education at the center. "Today, everyone who has called has the equipment but they just don't know how to actually see the channels."
About a third of Friday's calls to the FCC were still about federal coupons to pay for digital converter boxes, an indication that at least 100,000 people still didn't have the right equipment to receive digital signals.
Another third of the calls were handled by live agents, and 30 percent of those were about how to operate the converter boxes. The FCC said most of the converter box questions were resolved when callers were told to re-scan the airwaves for digital frequencies.
Over 20 percent of the live calls were about reception issues. Antennas can be fickle, because digital signals travel differently than analog ones.
A weakly received analog channel might be viewable through some static, but channels broadcast in the digital language of ones and zeros are generally all or nothing.
"People just needed to upgrade their antenna or return the lower quality one for stronger antennas," said Debbie Byrd, an FCC staffer who only had three visitors to her Saturday help session at a library in the south-central Los Angeles area.
A majority of the 100 million U.S. households with TV sets were not affected by the drop of analog signals, because they receive them through their cable or satellite company.
As of Saturday, the FCC said 20 TV stations that had been on the air went dark because they had not set up their digital broadcast equipment yet.
The largest volume of calls to the FCC on Friday came from the Chicago area, followed by Dallas-Ft. Worth, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
With 4,000 staffers manning the phones Friday, the average wait time per call was 4.6 minutes.
The FCC said its hot line was on track to receive another 150,000 calls on Saturday.
The National Association of Broadcasters said that 278 stations it surveyed nationwide received 35,500 calls on Friday, and the vast majority were resolved by re-scanning.
Any set hooked up to cable or a satellite dish is unaffected by the end of analog broadcasts, but around 17 million U.S. households rely on antennas. Nielsen Co. said poor and minority households were less likely to be prepared for Friday's analog shutdown, as were households consisting of people younger than 35.
The Commerce Department reported a last-minute rush for the $40 converter box coupons: It received 319,990 requests Thursday, nearly four times the daily average for the past month, and another 428,198 requests on Friday, for about 1.5 million since Monday.
In all, the government has mailed coupons for almost 60 million converter boxes. The limit is two coupons per household. It takes nine business days for a coupon to reach the mailbox.
For some procrastinators, that meant missing some important broadcasts.
Tuyen Luu waited until Friday to apply for a coupon at a nonprofit help center in Houston. By the time it arrives, the NBA finals could be over if the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Orlando Magic on Sunday. "I won't get to see Game 5," Luu said.