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DTV arrives but transition continues

While all full-power TV broadcasters in the United States discontinued regular analog broadcast service last week, for many, the transition to digital television continues. (Editor's note: Analog nightlight service continues, but that by definition is not regular broadcast service.)

Following the June 12 transition, some over-the-air viewers and broadcasters have continued making the adjustments necessary to bring their individual DTV transitions to a successful conclusion.

For some broadcasters, audience coverage has been a concern. The FCC reports it is examining viewer complaints of signal loss from stations in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. Other stations, including those in Miami and Wichita, KS, are among those that sought permission to increase power or modify signal propagation characteristics.

Many viewers too have had to address a range of issues to continue receiving over-the-air TV. In fact, the first post-transition tally from Nielsen of OTA television viewers that cannot receive a digital signal shows 2.5 million U.S. households have lost coverage.

According to the commission, the FCC telephone helpline received more than 900,000 calls in the week leading up to the transition from people seeking help. Commission statistics indicate calls from the public peaked June 12 — the day of the transition — at 317,450. The day after the transition, the number of calls declined to 145,403. By Sunday, the number of calls to the helpline fell to 62,949, the commission said.

The calls broke down into a few major categories. Twenty-eight percent of the callers June 14 — two days after the transition — inquired about setting up DTV converter boxes; 26 percent said they were having trouble receiving a specific station; and 23 percent needed help with other reception issues. The commission tally of calls also indicates its call center transferred more than 235,000 calls to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for help with securing converter box coupons.

The commission is attempting to help identify the source of the reception problems and address consumer issues, such as setting up converters, rescanning for digital signals and ensuring an antenna is being used properly via the helpline.

Beyond that, when properly setup viewers living in areas where coverage was anticipated don’t receive a specific station’s signal, FCC engineers are being dispatched into the field to help find out what’s going on, said FCC spokesman Rick Kaplan.

One such station, WLS-TV in Chicago, is having difficulty with coverage “close in” where no signal loss was anticipated, Kaplan said. (Calls to the station’s engineering department for comment were forwarded to voicemail.) According to Kaplan, stations facing these sorts of coverage problems have several options, including setting up a repeater, increasing effective radiated power and switching channel assignments — perhaps from a VHF to a UHF channel.

The root issue stems from assumptions made years ago when a digital television transmission standard was being contemplated, says independent consultant Barry Goodstadt. “The DTV standard envisioned rooftop antennas at 10m (33ft),” he says. “Most people don’t have that.”

According to Goodstadt, who authored reports predicting DTV reception problems over the past couple of years for market intelligence firm Centris, at the end of last year, 72 percent of OTA television viewers only had an indoor TV antenna. “An indoor antenna won’t change anything,” he says. “It takes three to 100 times the signal strength to get through buildings — 100 percent if they’re brick or made with aluminum siding.”

The disturbing news for broadcasters is the public’s tolerance for reception problems will be low because they have other alternatives, he says. “The truth is people are going to go elsewhere. Anecdotal data from my contacts at cable companies indicate they are getting lots of calls now.”