Page last updated at 06:55 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 07:55 UK

Americans gear up for switch-off

The US has seen a nationwide scramble to buy set-top boxes and new TVs as stations across the country switch off their analogue signal for good. But not everyone is ready, as BBC North America business correspondent Greg Wood reports.

TV sets in Best Buys in the US
Sales of digital televisions in the US have jumped 30%

It has been a busy few weeks for people like Merle Knowlton.

A retired carpenter, Merle, 78, has been doing the rounds in Staten Island, New York, as part of a charity programme to help elderly clients connect their set-top boxes.

"For people of my age," says Merle, "it's been a confusing time and it's not over yet because a lot of people are still going to have problems."

Today he is visiting Dorothy Fleming, who lives alone. Without his help, she would be missing out on her favourite TV shows.

"I was perfectly happy with it the way it was before," says Dorothy. "It was a bit of a tedious process really to get everything together. But supposedly it's going to be for the good, so we'll see."

The government has been running a series of TV adverts to warn people that the old analogue signal, which transmits pictures in wave form, is being switched off.

The date has already been postponed once, from February.

Even so, more than two million households are still totally unprepared and will lose reception.

The cheapest solution is to buy a set-top box, which converts the digital signal, a series of ones and noughts, into analogue form.


Digital retail advisor Crystal Stroupe talks Greg Wood through the digital switchover

The US authorities have issued coupons, worth $40 (£24) each, to cover most of the cost of buying a box.

But the converters, by themselves, are usually not enough. A new, more powerful aerial, is often needed to receive the digital signal.

'I'm clueless'

The alternative is to buy a brand new digital TV, at a cost ranging from $300 (£181) up to several thousand.

Sales of digital TVs in the US have jumped by more than 30% as people have scrambled to meet the deadline for the switch over.

William Lake
We understand that there are still some people that we haven't reached
William Lake
Federal Communications Commission

Crystal Stroupe is a customer specialist at Best Buy, the biggest chain of electronic retailers in the US. It is her job to steer customers through the digital maze.

"Here in this area there's a lot of elderly customers, people who really aren't as technologically savvy as they think they might be. They say things to me like: 'What do I do? I'm clueless.' That's where I come in. It's what I'm here for, to help them out and answer all their questions."

The US has decided to make the digital switchover in one go across the nation, rather than gradually - region by region - as in the UK.

That does mean that some people have been left behind.

"We're much better prepared than we would have been if we'd gone ahead with this in February, which was the original date," said William Lake, the digital transition co-ordinator at the Federal Communications Commission, which is overseeing the change.

"But we understand that there are still some people that we haven't reached. One of our principal concerns is to reach out as much as we can, in particular to vulnerable parts of the population, such as the elderly and low income households."

The US government has spent $2bn on advertising and coupons. But, even in a TV-fixated nation like this, it will be a while before everyone is comfortable with the new digital world.

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