Ah, Back to Antennas Again!

As the big clock on the wall ticks away on analog television, the digital picture continues to get muddier. However, one issue is now getting clearer—the truth about the need for an outdoor antenna.

Centris, the media market research firm, is back with new data that claims 9.2 million American homes could experience problems with over-the-air digital reception when the switch is pulled next February. The company says there are more than 17 million households currently receiving analog signals and half of those are located in challenging reception areas.

Actually, more than half—54 percent, to be exact. These are not people who live in out-of-the-way rural areas, but the largest cities in the United States—including New York and Los Angeles.

(click thumbnail)There’s a good chance that more people than originally thought will need outdoor antennas.
However, most interesting is the assertion that 75 percent of those over-the-air viewers have only indoor “rabbit ears,” rather than a proper ‘50s-era outdoor antenna.

Before we go on, a little history lesson is in order. It was early 1998, at Sony’s pre-NAB press event in New York, when the company’s then chief technology officer, Peter Dare, stunned his colleagues with the radical statement that among the unresolved DTV issues were reception problems without an outdoor antenna.

It was a stunning admission, at the time, because Dare had burst Sony’s DTV bubble of hype. Since DTV was “perfect,” how could Dare say such a thing—especially at an important news conference?

Sony’s PR apparat went into hyperventilation over Dare’s candid remarks about that and other DTV problems. Soon after, Dare went into a sort of public exile at Sony. Of course, time would prove he was dead-on right.

Though proponents still get hysterical over any criticism of DTV, Centris has plowed on under great criticism. The company, who revealed potential gaps in reception last February, said its new study provides the first in-depth national look at the scale of the reception issue, and identifies the top 10 cities in the country that have the most consumers at-risk.

The top 10 most at risk markets are, in order, New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Seattle–Tacoma, Wash.; San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose, Calif.; Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minn.; Atlanta; and Cleveland–Akron, Ohio.

Quality of reception, said Centris, depends on the terrain, distance from transmission towers, and sensitivity of antennas. The definition of “challenging reception” is that the viewer can receive only four or fewer broadcast TV stations if they have a small or medium omnidirectional rooftop antenna or if they have an indoor antenna.

Centris forecasts that 24 percent of consumers in difficult reception areas who have such antennas will receive no channels, and a further 10 percent will receive only a single channel. Barry Goodstadt, a Centris senior vice president, said the firm’s estimates are conservative since the study assumes that all consumers have rooftop antennas.

Needless to say, these predictions are far worse than those by the television industry or the powers that be in government. Now, all these years after the “grand alliance,” we’ll finally find out how well DTV works.

As might be expected, David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, blasted the Centris report for its accuracy. But then he confirmed a major part of it.

First, Donovan claimed that Centris did not conduct spectrum analysis or test signal strengths in the markets, and does not reflect the actual permanent channel space the stations will use when analog is switched off. Fair enough.

However, then he turned to the need for outdoor antennas.

“The issue is whether consumers will be able to receive signals with the same type of antenna they are currently using to receive analog signals,” Donovan said. “Of course, this may not be known until stations operate on their permanent digital channels and increase their coverage area in February 2009.”

Donovan also said there is “no doubt” that some Americans must be “reintroduced” to antennas as we move into DTV. “Some consumers may need a new antenna,” he admitted.

“If consumers do need more sensitive antennas, we would remind policy makers that these antennas are more susceptible to receiving interference. Accordingly, reception problems will be exacerbated by placing interfering unlicensed devices in the TV band,” Donovan said.

Wait a minute! That last comment is yet another threat to the FCC that unlicensed devices that use “white space” spectrum—which is not licensed to the broadcasters—could interfere with DTV signals. Of course, such spectrum could open the nation to a cheap source of wireless Internet access. Some very legitimate companies are advocating it. The broadcasters want it left alone.

An entirely separate argument, Mr. Donovan!


So, let’s review. Now, we finally learn there’s a good chance that many more people than originally expected will need outdoor antennas. Good luck!

Does anyone actually believe that hordes of Americans will climb onto their rooftops—just as in the 1950s—to install an antenna in order to receive their local DTV stations?

I suspect not. When the full-power analog signal goes dark next Feb. 17, I think that many Americans will simply pick up the telephone and call their cable, satellite or telephone company. They’ll complain about the lack of free TV for a while, but will soon forget it was ever free.

Most are already too addicted.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.