On Friday, broadcasters finally pull the plug on analog TV, something that's been around since the end of World War II. For most of us, who get television via cable or satellite dishes, it'll be no big whoop. But about 3 million households, unprepared for the switch to digital television (DTV) will have screens filled with "snow," meaning no signal.
There's been considerable publicity about the switch, with Washington urging consumers who use antennas for over-the-air reception to get converter boxes for their old analog receivers.
But there was a bureaucratic foul-up when the government ran out of coupons entitling people to buy the boxes at a big discount. Now there are more coupons, but many consumers won't get them in time for the switch.
Support groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund have been sending volunteers out to help the poor, the elderly and non-English speakers navigate the red tape, obtain converters and get them working.
As I listened in on a conference call for reporters organized by the Leadership Conference, I was thinking about the late Lynn Lewis of San Diego.
My mom. "Granny Lynn" to my two daughters.
I remember how much she relied on her TV for companionship in the last years of her life. It was a vintage 19" model on a cart that she could wheel from her living room to her bedroom and she used the built-in "rabbit ears" antenna to pick up a few local channels, putting up with fading signals and "ghosty" images. She had augmented the antenna with little homemade aluminum appendages carved out of supermarket pie containers and artfully wrapped around the two rods. She claimed the foil gave her a better picture.
"Why don't you let me put an antenna on your roof?" I often asked. "You'd get more channels and better reception."
"Roof's too old," was her stock response. "Don't want you or anybody else stomping on the shingles and messing around with any antenna."
"Well, I would be glad to pay for cable for you," I said. "That way, you would get all sorts of channels, crystal clear."
That might have assuaged some of my guilt about not getting down more often from Los Angeles to see her, but she wasn't buying it.
"Don't want those cable people traipsing around my house. I value my privacy and I'm just fine with the rabbit ears."
Today, I wonder how many seniors like Granny Lynn, who can't or won't abandon their old way of watching television, will wake up after the DTV switch to find their screens blank. How many poor people, who can't afford cable or satellite, will be in the same boat? That's a big question in these hard economic times.
"Some families on the edge may become over-the-air households again," said Erica Swanson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, noting that many families, faced with mounting stacks of unpaid bills, are cancelling cable TV service.
"The number one question I get as I travel the country is: 'why is the government doing this to me?'" said FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.
He tells people that with DTV, they'll get better picture quality and more channels, all for free.
It's actually about liberating space in the electromagnetic spectrum for new mobile telephone services and giving new communications frequencies to police and fire departments.
And as for that promise of better picture quality and more channels, that's only partly correct. If you presently get good over-the-air reception, you'll really like the clarity of the digital signals, especially noticeable if you've got a newer digital high definition set. The over-the-air HDTV signal is actually higher quality than most cable or satellite providers can deliver. And digital technology enables broadcasters to squeeze multiple signals onto one channel, so there are plenty of new things to watch.
On the other hand, if you have marginal reception, as my mother did using her foil-festooned rabbit ears, you might find some of the channels you used to watch don't come in at all, or come in intermittently with the picture tearing up digitally and freezing.
One solution is to get a professionally installed outdoor antenna specifically designed for DTV, but that can run several hundred dollars. Free over-the-air TV isn't free for everyone.
Then, there's the question of what happens when the power goes out in emergencies, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. Many people living along the Gulf Coast or in the Midwest's "Tornado Alley" keep battery operated TV sets in their homes so they can follow the weather reports. But practically all those receivers are the old analog variety that'll be useless without converters. And the converter boxes all need AC power to work.
"There seems to be no solution right now," said Annie Chung, President and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly in San Francisco, where many people have battery-operated TV's in their earthquake preparedness kits.
After talking to her, it occurred to me there is another electronic device that will work in emergencies. It's called a portable radio. And if you need entertainment, you can always try to read a book from the light cast by the blank screen of your obsolete TV.
And I don't imagine too many people are going to be singing: "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" while pondering how they got on the wrong side of the digital divide.
(The Federal Communications Commission has a toll-free number, 1-888-CALL-FCC, to answer questions from people concerned about the DTV switch. There's also a website, www.DTV.gov with a list of helpful agencies and answers to the most frequently asked questions.)