The Black Hole TVs

The Digital Transition Aftermath in SA

By Haylley Johnson

A father gets up in the morning to make a cup of joe and watch the news before heading off to work. In preparation for the analog to digital switch, he had purchased a TV converter box for his old analog TV and set up his rabbit-eared antenna. Nothing should prevent him from watching his favorite morning broadcast. But the TV only displays static — even after wires are twiddled and buttons are pushed.

This was one problem that hit San Antonians on June 12, 2009, the official date of the transition from analog to digital broadcast signals. Patricia Gonzales, Senior Vice President of the William C. Velasquez Institute said that the main difficulty people experienced this past weekend was that they already had the converter box, but it was not set up correctly. The Velasquez Institute provides English and Spanish speakers to answer questions over the phone and to help individuals acquire the government-issued coupons for converter boxes.

With the switch to digital signals, people need to buy a new digital set or have the mirepoix of electronics — the analog television, the signal converter box, and an antenna — but “`people` didn't know that once the transition occurred you would have to rescan `reset` your converter box” Wesley Zernial, program coordinator for the Alamo Area Agency of Aging, said. All the puzzle pieces must be there, and one has to know how to hook them all together.

Since electronics are so easy to not understand, the phone calls and requests came flooding in on Friday morning and continued through Saturday. The WCVI received a substantial amount of calls for help on Saturday, according to Gonzales. “Saturday was our â??whoa' morning,” she said.

But Friday was a particularly crazy day for the FCC-funded South Texas Resource and Assistance Center — a nonprofit organization that, among many things, sends technicians to install converter boxes and antennas for free. “Our call center crashed twice because we got so many calls . . . We couldn't keep up with the volume,” Adam Rodriguez, vice chair, board member and grant writer for the Center, said.

The Center received approximately 150 calls per hour for the first two days (phew!), and Rodriguez says the Center needs more bilingual volunteers. “There are three demographics `of people calling us`,” he said. “There are folks that were prepared, but they didn't know how to rescan; there are ones that weren't ready and were calling for coupons; and then there were some seniors and disabled who didn't understand what happened.”

“We were stretched,” he said, and no wonder. The FCC placed the Center in charge of aiding all of South Texas, Houston, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.

Many other companies around San Antonio felt the heat — indoors that is. Bjorn's and Best Buy experienced increased customer demand over the weekend. Bjorn's had heavy phone traffic on Friday from people calling to get information on how to rescan their converter box, said Joey Martinez, assistant sales-floor manager. Ernest Rangel, manager for the Best Buy in Selma, said “Not too many people came in looking for new TVs; they came in for convertor boxes and antennas.”

Prior to the switch, the NTIA identified seven cities that would need extra assistance during the switch. “`San Antonio was` at risk due to the high level of low income, elderly, Mexican `Spanish speaking`, and deaf populations `who would need help`,” said Deanne Cuellar, Project director for the Texas Media Empowerment Project. A June 10 Nielsen Media Research press release projected that 3.17 percent of homes in San Antonio were still not ready for the change.

But now, most coordinators for groups aiding San Antonians with the switch believe the transition went well, all things considered. “I think it was pretty smooth . . . there will always be people that need help, `but` I would give it a B if I were to grade it,” says Rodriguez.

However, Zernial sees it a bit differently. “I think the transition has been really good . . . we were ranked as number 2 in the nation for DTV preparedness” he says. “What makes San Antonio different is that all of the DTV grant recipients have been very cooperative and worked together . . . We share resources,” Zernial says. “San Antonio has done a really great job.”

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