Today, TV enters totally digital era

Unprepared viewers won't receive picture.Coupons to purchase converter boxes will be available until July 31.

Those who procrastinate will be left in the dark.

Nobody knows how many there are in Atlanta's 2.4 million television households. Nielsen estimates about 26,000.

But when they flip on their TVs today, they'll enter the twilight zone. There will be no picture. Just a screen of black-and- white snow. And noise enough to scare pets and children.

They are the viewers the federal government has spent 13 years —- and about $1 billion in public information campaigns —- trying to educate and upgrade with digital converters.

They will lose their reception on old TV sets as the nation's TV stations switch from analog to digital broadcast signals.

Telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan said he expected people to rush to stores to get converters when their signal goes out, and no amount of planning could prevent that.

"People know how to fix their TV sets," he said. "They just haven't gotten around to doing it."

As for TV viewers hooked to cable, satellite or the Internet, it will be just another day. Their service won't be interrupted.

Atlanta TV stations said they're prepared for the inevitable rash of calls from those suddenly without a signal: They've set up phone banks and hotlines, and will be running promos and news coverage of the switch.

In preparation, the federal government distributed 59 million $40 coupons to viewers to purchase TV converter boxes.

The coupons are available until July 31, the FCC said Thursday. There's more information on the Web site www.dtv.gov, or by calling toll-free 1-888-388-2009 (1-888-DTV-2009).