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Nation prepares for switch to digital TV

Rick Wagner • Jan 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Come Feb. 17, the biggest change in television since color TV is scheduled to hit the U.S. over-the-air viewing public head on.

That’s the date, at midnight, when full-power analog over-the-air television stations are supposed to cease broadcasting and digital TV signals already in use become the standard.

Even if the deadline is extended by the federal government, proposals are for the switch to come by mid-year.

Not since the introduction of commercial color television in 1953 has such a dramatic change occurred in U.S. television.

However, unlike the 1953 color system that continued to work alongside the old black-and-white TV signal, the new digital signals cannot be received by analog tuners.

That means that an analog TV — the kind marketed commercially since the 1940s in this country — will pick up only snow or an occasional series of dots or squiggly lines where full-power stations once were, although some low-power, limited range stations will remain on analog.

(For the record, the new digital system also will carry black-and-white signals if anyone bothers to hook up a black-and-white TV to a digital-to-analog converter box.)

For the majority of viewers on cable or satellite, the changeover doesn’t mean much except for secondary sets using rabbit ears or an antenna.

However, with about 6.5 percent of the Tri-Cities’ 320,000 TV households not on cable or satellite, about 22,600 households must do something to continue getting the normal array of TV programming.

The U.S. Congress approved a converter box coupon program to lessen the financial impact of digital-to-analog converters that allow analog TVs to move into the digital age.

However, since the federal government’s $1.34 billion digital converter coupon program ran out of money Jan. 4, those applying for the $40 coupons, limit two per household, have been put on a waiting list to receive coupons as previously issued coupons expire.

Other options are to buy a converter without a $40 coupon, to buy a new TV or device such as a DVD recorder with a digital tuner or to subscribe to a paid service: cable or satellite.

Will analog go to snow?

Viewers in the Tri-Cities already have had small doses of analog-free TV.

For instance, WJHL-TV 11 in Johnson City, WCYB-TV 5 in Bristol, Va., WKPT-TV 19 in Kingsport and WEMT-TV 39 in Greeneville have temporarily halted regular analog signals to let viewers know if they will be left without service when the changeover occurs.

George DeVault, president of Holston Valley Broadcasting that owns WKPT-TV, said the “soft” analog shutdown was effective in increasing consumer awareness, based on calls to the station.

During the random two-minute shutdown, information was broadcast on the changeover to digital and how to prepare for it.

Likewise, Jack Dempsey, general manager of WJHL, said that one “soft” shutdown held during a newscast generated 1,500 calls in two hours from folks with questions about the analog-to-digital change.

TV station Web sites have sections dedicated to the digital changeover, as do most retailers of the converter boxes.

President-elect Barack Obama has proposed a four-month extension of the analog shutdown, while Congress may consider more money for the converter coupon program.

Jim McKernan, general manager of NBC affiliate WCYB-TV 5 in Bristol, Va., referred questions to Tom Cupp, chief engineer for WCYB, which also has done soft analog shutdowns. WCYB is owned by Bonten Media Group, while Media General owns WJHL.

Dempsey said WJHL had planned to halt analog altogether a day early, Feb. 16, but that President George W. Bush — whose administration opposes the Obama extension — has signed a bill for the federal government to allow a 30-day extension of analog broadcasts for limited public safety broadcasts and information on the digital changeover, a so-called “night-light” plan.

DeVault said that Channels 19 and 39, WEMT-TV owned by the same company as WCYB, could do that relatively easy with Federal Communications Commission approval since their digital frequencies are different than their analog ones.

However, he said that would be more difficult for Channels 5 and 11 because they are on temporary digital frequencies and will revert back to 5 and 11, respectively, when the changeover is completed.

Mike Moore, chief engineer for WJHL, said the FCC would have to give special permission for WJHL to have a night light since analog and digital cannot transmit at the same time on the same frequency. Channel 58, WJHL’s temporary digital home, is supposed to be off limits for all TV after Feb. 17 along with everything higher than 52.

Because of the temporary channel assignments, over-the-air viewers with converter boxes must have their converters search for new signals after midnight Feb. 17 to be sure they receive all available stations.

The same would occur if the night-light program extended any temporary digital channel assignments.

Cupp, vice president of engineering for Bonten, said no local stations are scheduled for the night light program, but that could change.

Continuing to operate analog transmitters after Feb. 17 would cost about $4,000 a month for WKPT and about $10,000 for WJHL, according to DeVault and Dempsey.

Why go to digital TV?

Mandated by the federal government in 2004, the Feb. 17 end of full-power analog is designed to provide clearer and sharper reception and free up the frequencies for use by public service and commercial use.

In addition, digital can carry more than one line of programming per channel. For instance, WJHL has its regular programing on 11-1, while 11-2 has 24-hour weather. WKPT has 19-1 regular programming in high definition and standard definition, 19-2 WAPK-TV — which is My Network TV, and 19-3 — which is WOPI-TV Retro TV Network. WCYB has 5-1 regular programming in high definition and standard definition and 5-2, the CW Network. WEMT will have regular programing on 39-1 and 39-2, the difference being 39.2 is standard definition and 39.1 is high definition.

On the downside, some viewers who have been able to receive fuzzy analog signals may not get any digital picture at all, since digital is either all or nothing.

“We won’t know for sure ’til Feb. 17,” Cupp said. “WCYB will return to VHF RF Channel 5 for our digital broadcasts. VHF channels tend to do better in mountainous areas like ours. It’s also due to the mountainous terrain that we recommend outside antennas instead of ‘rabbit ears.’”

The changeover first was proposed during the Clinton administration in the late 1990s after stations received an additional frequency to go digital in 1996, but the mandatory transition was delayed until this year.

One concern in some markets is that the signal footprint of TV stations could change the potential viewing audience appreciably.

How is digital reception?

Joe Calbreth, manager of Rex Radio & Television in Kingsport, said that all the major Tri-Cities network affiliates come in strongly on antennas — except Channel 19.

Mark Berlowtz, home theater supervisor for Best Buy in Johnson City, reported similar experiences from his customers.

Calbreth said Channel 39 comes in so well on an antenna that he switches from his satellite feed to watch Sunday sports since the picture is clearer because the video is not as compressed.

“You will see clearer, crisper pictures over the air in HD in cable or satellite,” DeVault said.

However, DeVault said that fluctuations are caused by how much power the FCC allows a station and geographic locations and terrain.

Still, DeVault and Dempsey said the Tri-Cities market should get overall better reception with digital since the transmitter locations are the same for analog as digital, with all major stations on Holston Mountain except 39 near Greeneville.

DeVault said that Channel 39 may see an increase in its viewable area based on FCC maps of projected digital coverage vs. analog at www.fcc.gov/dtv/markets/maps_report1/Tri-Cities_TN-VA.pdf.

Dempsey said slight changes would shift usable signals for viewers in fringe areas, For instance, DeVault said Channel 19 might lose a few potential viewers in the Morristown area, which he said really is no big deal since that is part of the Knoxville market.

The station also will lose some viewers in places like Smyth County, but DeVault and Dempsey said most TV viewers in outlying areas already are on satellite or cable.

Channels 5 and 11 have nearly identical analog and digital footprints on the FCC maps. However, PBS WMSY-TV 52, DTV 42 in Marion, and WSBN -TV 47, DTV 32 in Norton, will have larger footprints, as will religious station WLFG-TV 68, DTV49, in Grundy.

Tennessee PBS affiliate WSJK-TV 2 is physically located in the Tri-Cities TV market and viewable from much of Northeast Tennessee but is considered part of the Knoxville market.

However, DeVault said maps show that its digital coverage area, moving permanently to Channel 41, is smaller than its analog area because the low frequency carries signal farther.

Lower frequencies, from 2 to 5, are more prone to electrical interference, especially in digital. The lack of a 2, 3 or 4 in the Tri-Cities could lead to those being sold for emergency responders or commercial wireless use, DeVault said.

Converters still available

Local retailers reported sales of the converters to be going well, reflecting the national trends of increased demand for the $40 coupons.

The set-top boxes, available at a variety of retailers, generally cost $45 to $80. Including tax, a consumer’s net cost can be as little as $10.

Joey Smith, who oversees electronics and other hard lines at Target in Kingsport, said a converter costing $70 there has sold so well it often sells out. Other converters are available for about $45 to $55.

He said both converter boxes and digital TVs are selling well at Target.

“A lot of people like to have a TV in every room,” Smith said of people who have cable or satellite but not for every TV in the household.

Matt Barnett, operations manager for Circuit City in Kingsport, said the boxes also have sold well there. Both models sell for about $60 plus tax, or less than $20 after the coupon.

“They’ve pretty much been steady ever since the coupons first came out,” Barnett said.

During a sometimes contentious telephone news conference with reporters nationwide Jan. 5, Meredith Baker, acting assistant administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, attributed part of a spiked demand in request for converter box coupons to a downturn in the economy that may cause people to opt for a converter instead of a new TV.

Berlowtz said that campers who attend the NASCAR races at Bristol Motor Speedway have been buying new sets because space is a premium in campers.

“When the converter boxes first come out, we had a hard time keeping them in stock,” Berlowtz said.

Smith said since prices have fallen on LCD and plasma TVs, the sets have sold well. Also on the market are lower-end cathode ray sets with digital tuners Berlowtz predicted would remain for years to come.

“I’m just amazed at the new flat LCD, the size and clarity,” Smith said.

All digital sets will receive and reproduce digital signals, but not all sets are high definition or HDTV. The sets, with better clarity and resolution, have more lines and wider screen ratios.

Coupons in demand

For those not willing or able to buy new sets or other devices containing a digital tuner, the converter program is the government’s answer.

However, funds ran out after a record 7.2 million people requested coupons in December compared to 4.9 million in November, 3.9 million in October, and an average of 3.5 million from September back to January 2008, when the program started.

So as of Jan. 4, those who apply for a coupon are put on a waiting list and will receive a coupon as old ones not used expire.

Redemption rates initially were about 52 percent but increased to 58 percent to 60 percent, according to Baker of the NTIA.

Projections from the NTIA are that the program could end up running 2.5 million coupons short of meeting requests without additional funding from Congress.

In addition, Baker said federal accounting rules will not allow more coupons to be issued until existing coupons expire, which at 60 percent redemption would occur at about 351,000 a week. Congress, however, also could waive that accounting rule, extend the deadline for full-power analog to end or appropriate more money.

Otherwise, in all Baker projected about 6 million more coupons would in effect be redistributed.

Baker encouraged those who have not applied for a coupon but need one to go ahead and make other arrangements, including buying a box without a coupon, before Feb. 17.

She said as issued coupons expire, those who get on the waiting list will receive coupons on a first-come, first-served basis — but likely not in time for the Feb. 17 analog-to-digital switch for full-power TV across the nation.

She said those who request a coupon online or on the phone should write down a reference number provided so they can track their coupon online.

For more information, go to www.DTV2009.gov, www.antennaweb.org, www.circuitcity.com, www.bestbuy.com, www.target.com and www.walmart.com.

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