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06.28.2004
Originally featured on BroadcastEngineering.com
Report notes the era of high-maintenance TV

How smoothly is the DTV transition going for consumers? The New York Times reports that while many users have no problem receiving DTV and HD broadcasts over-the-air, others may have shared stories of problems online discussion groups AVS Forum.

These users, the Times said, report that decoder boxes may pull in some broadcast stations but not others, depending on the time of day, distance from the transmitter, proximity to other buildings and weather conditions. Boxes from every manufacturer are reported to freeze up and to require rebooting, usually by hitting a reset button or by unplugging the box and then plugging it back in.

Many consumers thought fiddling with TV antennas had ended years ago when they hooked into cable or satellite service, but are finding that DTV antennas don't work properly unless the aim is exactly right.

A majority of digital TV owners, however, are not even trying to watch HD broadcasts. Since the transition to digital broadcasting began in 1998, 8.3 million households have acquired digital TVs, according to Adams Media Research. But only 1.7 million of those have the built-in hardware or set-top box necessary to receive and decode HDTV broadcast signals. The owners of the other 6.6 million sets are using them to watch SD TV and DVDs.

According to the report, Rick Roome, a software engineer in Simi Valley, CA, can receive the digital feed of almost every Los Angeles station with his DTV. But even though he is using a 17-foot antenna on his roof and lives just 35 miles from the Mount Wilson transmitter he still loses ABC somedays – usually around sundown.

Such reception problems can arise due to several factors:

  • Digital set-top boxes are as complex as computers; when broadcasters send digital signals that do not exactly adhere to the official transmission standards, the box may be incapable of handling them.

  • To cut power bills when digital viewers are few, most broadcast stations that transmit a digital signal are using less than full power to do so. This not only reduces the range that the signal can travel but also provides a weaker signal even when a customer lives well within the coverage area.

  • Living closer to a broadcast tower does not reduce the likelihood of reception problems. Urban residents can suffer from the effects of multipath transmissions, signals that bounce off buildings and hills and arrive at the TV from several directions.

Even pay TV viewers are suffering set-top box problems. Tony Boyd, a retail store planner in Dallas, has no problem receiving digital broadcast channels with his decoder box and an antenna. But when he is watching some HDTV channels on DirecTV, the audio or video drops out from time to time, and the box occasionally freezes. Boyd has gone through two units, but the symptoms persist.

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