The months-delayed transition to digital TV hits Baltimore at 12:30 p.m. today, and while surveys indicate the vast majority of Baltimoreans and their TV sets are ready, local stations are taking no chances.
Phone banks and walk-in centers have been set up throughout the Baltimore-Washington area to help confused viewers with old TV sets that have suddenly stopped working. That's on top of the repeated public-service announcements, news stories and screen crawls that have been all over local television the past week.
"We think Baltimore is fairly ready," says Wanda Q. Draper, director of programming and public affairs for WBAL, Channel 11, "although there may be some homes where one set is not ready."
The digital switch was originally set for Feb. 17 but was moved back to June to give Congress more time to fund a federal voucher program offering discount coupons for converter boxes. (To order a coupon, visit dtv2009.gov or call 888-388-2009.)
Once the switch is made from traditional analog to digital transmission today, TV sets not connected to a cable or satellite system will need to be connected to an electronic converter box to pick up local broadcast stations. If a home without a cable or satellite hookup has more than one television, each will need to be connected to a converter box.
Fewer than 1 percent of Baltimore households are totally unprepared for the switch, according to a survey released last month by Nielsen Media Research. About 14 percent are "partially unready," meaning not all the home's TV sets are connected to a converter box.
Even those homes that are prepared may be in for a surprise today. Because several of the local broadcast stations will be showing up on different frequencies once the switch is made, viewers whose sets or converter boxes are equipped with automatic tuners will have to re-scan channels. In addition, antennas might need to be adjusted to pick up the digital signal.
Confused viewers can call either 888-CALL-FCC (888-225-5322), a number set up by the Federal Communications Commission, or 877-388-6808, a number set up by the Baltimore-Washington Broadcasters Association. Visitors to the FCC Web site (dtv2009.gov) can type in their ZIP code to find where they can go to get their questions answered in person.
At WMAR, Channel 2, station management is setting up its own phone bank at 410-481-2222, which will be staffed from 12:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. today. FCC representatives, as well as an engineer from WMAR, will be on hand to answer questions. At Maryland Public Television, employees are being asked to spend at least two volunteer hours answering phones.
"We really don't know what to expect," said Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of WJZ, Channel 13. "We know a lot of people are ready to go, we know that people are aware of the switch. What we don't know is whether there will be a lot of questions."
Few station officials expect to be deluged with phone calls. At WBFF, Channel 45, where the switch to digital went through in February, General Manager Bill Fanshawe said, "We had some calls, but there was not mass confusion."
Some officials believe the digital switch will go down as another in a long line of mass panics that never happened.
"We think we'll be prepared for the onslaught, if there is one," said MPT spokesman Mike Golden. "But this might end up being like Y2K."