Final ThoughtThe Sopranos Channel Plan?

Poor New Jersey--it gets no respect. A recent study declared a joke about a pair of New Jersey hunters to be the funniest not merely in America or even in the English language, but in the whole world. The state has beautiful beaches, mountains, forests, and farmland, but the world thinks of it as the industrial landscape that opens each episode of The Sopranos. And then there's digital television.

Actually, New Jersey's TV problems started with analog. Before 1966, it, one of the most populous states in the country, had just one TV station. Though that station has remained licensed to the state, it long ago moved its main studios, transmitter, and offices to New York City. Five stations currently licensed to New Jersey have transmitted for years from New York City, and one more from Pennsylvania.

Aside from those six, the state now has another ten full-power analog TV stations: four non-commercial outlets of the New Jersey Network in Camden, Montclair, New Brunswick, and Trenton; another non-commercial station in West Milford; and commercial stations in Atlantic City (two), Newton, Vineland, and Wildwood. And then there's WCVB-DT in Boston.

No, there's no Boston, NJ and yes, Boston, MA is several states away. But on November 1, the Camden Courier Post reported that signals from that Boston digital television station had been wiping out public safety communications in Camden county on warm nights.

If true, that's perhaps the most serious of the digital TV interference cases that have been springing up as more and more stations come on line and increase power and hours of operation. All of the others have thus far been cases of digital TV signals interfering with analog TV reception in a different market.

Many transitions have some pain associated with them. After refrigerators replaced ice boxes, foods sometimes dried out. A horse-drawn carriage could often get its inebriated occupants home safely; automobiles can't.

In coming up with a channel allocation table for digital television, the FCC was faced with doubling the number of TV stations on the air during the transition period. Perhaps it relied too much on the theory that digital television signals would never seriously interfere with analog.

At least that seems to have been the theory everywhere except New Jersey. In New Jersey, the theory seems to have been more a version of "Who cares?"

In some markets, the FCC has assigned a station's analog and digital signals to adjacent channels. The equipment to make that work is not trivial, but it could save the station tower and antenna costs.

In Atlantic City, NJ, the FCC assigned two different stations adjacent channels for one another's digital signals. That put the onus of selectivity on consumer receivers. Neither station thought that such a good idea, so they petitioned for a change. On May 23 of last year, the FCC agreed. It changed WWAC's digital allocation from channel 50 to channel 44.

Unfortunately, the FCC happened to have assigned quite a few channel 44 slots to digital TV in the area. WNYW-DT in New York City was a safe 168 miles from WDBP-DT in Seaford, DE. WDBP-DT was 134 miles from WCVW-DT in Richmond, VA and 144 miles from WWPB in Hagerstown, MD. But WWAC-DT in Atlantic City is just 98 miles from WNYW-DT in New York and just 80 miles from WDBP in Seaford.

When WWAC-DT began digital broadcasting, it immediately wiped out reception of WNYW-DT for some viewers. WDBP-DT isn't transmitting on channel 44 yet. As a non-commercial station, it's not due on the air until next May.

When it begins digital transmissions, it will be battling WWAC-DT (and vice versa). A viewer halfway between the stations would be hard pressed to receive either; a directional antenna would help only if no reflecting surfaces (buildings, water towers, etc.) served to send the undesired station's signal back with the desired one. And the halfway point is just 40 miles; that's not deep fringe.

Why did the FCC assign two digital TV stations 80 miles apart to the same channel? Maybe The Sopranos had something to do with it. If you can't get off-air signals, there's always cable.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.