Angst over the digital TV transition conjures memories of Y2K wackiness

Booths hawking survival products packed a Phoenix-area church. Vendors sold gasoline generators, water purifiers, grain grinders, solar cookers, gold coins and portable radios.

The year was 1999. Y2K, the millennial apocalypse caused by a computer programming bug, was coming.

Spurred by worst-case-scenario media reports, local residents wanted to be prepared. Some actually built bunkers to protect themselves, presumably from the roving cannibal hordes that would take to the streets once traffic lights stopped functioning.

So little faith in society's ability to handle a potential lapse of a public utility.

And not entirely unlike the worries over the impact of the digital TV transition.

"For older Americans who rely on television for companionship, for another voice in the house, that loss could be devastating," a recent Newhouse wire service story fretted. The story also quoted Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl saying, "If you don't prepare for it, then it will overtake us, and it will be a huge crisis."

Senator, relax. Just because a problem is widespread in that it impacts many people, it doesn't mean it's a widespread problem in that it will have significant ramifications.

A broken appliance is not a "huge crisis" — unless it's a dishwasher.

The worst-case worries over the digital transition assume that viewers who have not made the switch by Feb. 17 will need their TVs immediately and not know what to do if their sets stop functioning. Broadcasters are so concerned that they successfully lobbied Nielsen to take the unprecedented step of pushing back the start of the February sweep to March.

Conveniently, the very people most likely to be disturbed by the transition — those who watch a lot of TV — are the same people most likely to be informed when it finally happens, having heard repeated warnings about the switch from morning shows, local news and public-service announcements. So, in a sense, the digital transition is a self-solving problem: TV watchers will know about the switch from watching TV or will be among the first to learn their analog service is cut off.

A January Nielsen survey found that only 10% of households receive television signals solely via over-the-air transmission. And by all measures, the number of consumers aware of the transition has grown rapidly: According to Magid, awareness hit 59% this year. A National Association of Broadcasters survey put awareness even higher, at 79%. Last month, Leichtman Research Group claimed that number has reached 84%.

These numbers often are used to show that a significant percentage of the public remains unaware of the transition. But let's put the data another way: More Americans know about a wonky FCC transmission policy decision than can name the three branches of government (40%, by one survey) or the current vice president (69%, by another).

Teaching three-quarters of the American public anything is astounding — and the switchover is still seven months away. (Granted, the bulk of these consumers are aware of the transition but still don't know precisely what to do about it.)

As for the expected broadcast ratings drop, Nielsen projects that merely 3% of its household sample will have at least one set that won't work on Feb. 17, which isn't to say they won't have at least one that will.

There's also a media presumption that consumers who haven't made the switch yet must be oblivious. The thing is, consumers procrastinate. The TV-buying holiday season is still ahead. When it comes to bargain hunting for consumer electronics, there's no better rule of thumb than "wait until November."

The only real civic concern here is if a household is ignorant of the transition and depends on their TV for severe weather warnings — then you throw in an inconveniently timed flood, hurricane or tornado. If you live in a severe weather state, however, you know that few rely solely on TVs during a crisis because the power often goes out. You turn on the radio, you check weather on your cell phone or call your neighbors.

Oh, there is one difference between Feb. 17 and Y2K: Whereas the dawn of the new millennium disappointed doomsayers, next year the media will still manage to get a juicy morning-after story.

They will go to a Best Buy and interview patrons waiting in line with a digital converter box.

"I turned on my TV this morning," a bewildered consumer will say, "and there was no picture."

Strangely, this moment will be used as an example of how a problem was not solved.

James Hibberd can be reached at