The future of American broadcast television is coming February 17th when U.S. stations are supposed to shut down forever their analog transmitters. After then, all broadcast TV in the United States will be digital.

Too bad we aren’t ready.

We’ve had more than a decade to prepare for this moment. I did the first-ever PBS HD broadcast back in 1998 and explained then what was going to happen next month. The date was already set. But some people just don’t listen and I think the confusion we’ll see next month among parts of the TV audience will be huge.

Most of us actually have nothing to worry about because those who have satellite or cable TV, which is more than 80 percent of American TV viewers, won’t even notice a difference. That’s because the cable and satellite companies will continue to provide us with the same signals they always have, even though it means converting a digital signal back to analog.

In one sense the coming of DTV is a boon to cable and satellite companies because it may drive new customers to them. BUT IT HASN’T YET. Look at Time-Warner Cable’s recent announcement of flat subscriber growth. If customers were flying to cable because of worries about the DTV transition those TWC numbers would have been up, not flat. And they will go up, but not until the stations pull their plugs next month.

That’s the way some of us are, you know. We wait until our asses are on fire to do something about maintaining our Oprah fix

And even then you know the cable companies will screw it up because of the huge influx of new business and because, well, they ALWAYS screw things up. All those who love their cable TV service raise your hands.

Next month there will be howls of outrage from people who have somehow gone an entire decade watching TV and ignoring all those Public Service Announcements about the switchover. What does that say about the true power of advertising? Pitiful.

Just this week the Consumer Electronics Association released the results of a poll trumpeting the fact that 90 PERCENT of TV viewers now know the DTV switchover is coming. That’s supposed to be good news.

Think about it for a moment. There are 110 million households in the U.S. with televisions. According to the Consumer Electronics Association after a decade of explaining and promoting the changeover at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, ELEVEN MILLION HOUSEHOLDS STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT’S COMING.

And remember the CEA survey only concerns awareness and says nothing about whether people have actually prepared and are ready for the coming change in their TV service. Those numbers are undoubtedly lower than 90 percent.

Given the penetration of cable TV in this country the actual numbers probably won’t be that bad. If 80 percent of all viewers have cable or satellite one might hope that 80 percent of the clueless 10 percent are already covered, meaning those who will be surprised when Judge Judy goes dark might be as few as 2.2 million households. But my guess is that those who don’t know about DTV are LESS LIKELY to have cable or satellite so let’s approximately double that at-risk figure to four million households.

All these people have to do, of course, is get a digital converter box and maybe a new antenna to be able to watch DTV on their old ATV. The government even has a coupon program that will give us $40 off on up to two converter boxes per household. That’s up to two $40 coupons per household if I wasn’t clear. With some boxes costing EXACTLY $40, this means switching to DTV can be free! That is IF it works.

I live in Charleston, South Carolina, right downtown in the historic heart of the city. The day after Christmas 2006 I bought on sale a very nice Samsung HDTV and a Terk HDTV Pro indoor antenna – an antenna that WOULDN’T be covered by those $40 coupons. Though apparently many analog antennas are fine for DTV, I didn’t have an antenna at all, so I had to buy one.

In December, 2006 I was able to receive with acceptable quality ONE broadcast HD station on my HDTV. As of this morning – two years later — I am able to receive TWO acceptable HD signals.

I don’t live in the boonies. I don’t even live in the suburbs. I live less than seven miles from all five local HD transmission towers. I live in a colonial city that limits to 55 feet the maximum height of any building in my part of town. I have a name brand TV and a name brand antenna. Now my guess is that in the last two years digital receivers and antennas have both improved somewhat, but I should be able to get more than 40 percent of the signals that are supposed to be available.

Based on this experience my guess is that a lot of people are going to be disappointed with their new digital broadcast TV service. The FCC estimates that the possible TV audience will shrink by two percent, which is to say that the DTV signals won’t make it to two percent of the audience currently receiving analog TV. The FCC is hoping that most of those two percent have cable or satellite or maybe don’t give a damn. They are hoping, too, that their two percent estimate is too high. But my experience suggests that it is actually too low.

Here’s what I think is going to happen over the next two months. First, we’ll run out of converter coupons. Coupon supplies are already low and more haven’t yet been authorized because, of course, they represent a financial obligation – one that requires Congressional approval. Interestingly there are plenty of converter boxes available, which means that people have coupons they haven’t yet used. Maybe they are hoarding coupons. Maybe they are just lazy. Maybe, like mail-in rebates, lots of converter coupons are lost and will never be used. Whatever the reason there is going to be a big blow-up when up to four million households suddenly want converter boxes and can’t get coupons.

But even when they get their coupons and their converter boxes some percentage of the broadcast viewing audience is going to be dissatisfied with their new DTV service. I will be surprised – REALLY surprised – if this number is under 10 percent of those who don’t have cable or satellite, which puts us back with somewhere around two million really unhappy VOTERS.

Two million pissed-off people is a LOT of pissed-off people in a nation that is essentially governed through popularity polls. Two million angry people could have ended the war in Iraq. You can bet two million angry people will cause a tsunami of too-late over-reaction in Congress.

The politicians know this is coming. There are proposals right now in Congress to allow some TV stations to keep their analog transmitters running awhile longer. But this just delays the problem and doesn’t solve it.

This too shall pass, of course. People will survive a short time without Dr. Phil. But don’t be surprised if Congress grabs money from the Fiscal Stimulus wallet and starts handing out subsidized basic cable subscriptions or even HDTVs to those people who waited.

Maybe they aren’t so dumb after all.