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DTV transition not so smooth in some markets

The DTV transition continues into its third week, with antenna and reception glitches plaguing viewers and stations with low VHF channel numbers mainly located in large Northeastern cities.

When the remaining 971 full-power television stations went digital on June 12, it was expected there would be sporadic problems throughout the country. That prediction turned out to be true. Only the locations were wrong. Rather than Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Dallas and Austin — the least prepared DTV cities — the most significant problems turned out to be in Northeastern urban areas.

In Philadelphia, for example, thousands of over-the-air viewers could not receive the signal of WPVI-TV, channel 6, an ABC O&O and the leading station in the market. There were also reception problems with WHYY-TV, channel 12, the public television station in Philadelphia. Similar problems occurred with stations in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

In Chicago, WLS-TV, channel 7, another ABC O&O, and WBBM-TV, channel 2, had significant complaints of reception problems. In Washington, D.C., WUSA-TV, channel 9, and WJLA-TV, channel 7, disappeared from many viewers’ screens. In New York City, where nearly 11,000 viewers called with problems, many apartment dwellers lost reception due to improper master antennas on the roofs of their buildings.

FCC officials have held meetings to discuss a potential solution to the reception problems. In some cases, stations may have to increase power levels or add translators to extend the signal to more viewers. However, in cities like Philadelphia, the FCC is afraid to boost the signal of WPVI because it could lead to interference with FM radio stations in Philadelphia, or TV stations in other markets.

A key part of the problem is focused on the lower channel numbers in the VHF frequency band. More than 480 stations across the country are now airing broadcasts on VHF frequencies. Only 216 stations were operating on those frequencies before the transition.

This is the case in Philadelphia, where WPVI broadcasts on channel 6 in the VHF band, adjacent to many FM radio stations. WHYY broadcasts on channel 12. Other Philadelphia TV stations — the ones without trouble — broadcast in upper VHF or in the UHF band.

Similar reception problems were reported in the VHF bands in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. It is now believed that the FCC inaccurately forecast the necessary signal strength for VHF in the lower channel range.

“We are looking at all available options to resolve these issues,” said Michael Copps, the FCC’s acting chairman. He said the commission is discussing issues with individual stations and has bolstered its staff in the problem areas.

Copps noted that transition continues and will go on for a long time. “The DTV transition is not a one-day affair,” he noted. “There will be a period of adjustment as we all figure out how to make this new technology work in the real world. Some consumers still need to get converter boxes. Others will have to move or adjust their antennas or perhaps even buy more powerful ones in order to receive the channels they should be receiving.”

On June 12, the day the analog shutdown occurred, New York City led with 11,000 callers, the largest number at the FCC call center. Number two was Chicago at 6526, followed by Los Angeles with 5473, Dallas-Fort Worth at 4329, and Philadelphia with 3749. The total number of calls last week was nearly 900,000. About 4000 staffers handled the calls, the FCC said.

About 28 percent of the calls concerned the operation of digital converter boxes that many viewers of over-the-air broadcasts needed to connect to their TV sets, while 26 percent reported not being able to receive specific stations and 23 percent with broader reception issues.

A key issue involved antennas. Viewers need combination UHF/VHF antennas to get all digital stations. Wally Grotophorst of Hamilton, VA, was a good example of the problem. On Friday, he lost the Washington-based ABC and CBS stations, channels 7 and 9, which he could pick up digitally before the transition.

That’s because those stations, like dozens of others, switched their digital signals from the UHF frequency band to the VHF band as they cut their analog signals. However, Grotophorst’s antenna, like many others branded as “digital” and sold over the past few years, was designed only for UHF reception. Grotophorst said the move to VHF spectrum was news to him, and the stations didn’t mention it in their educational materials.

In New York City, where many apartment buildings share a common master antenna on the roof, viewers discovered that only VHF antennas could receive channels 2 through 13. Before the transition, this didn’t mean much. On June 12, however, that changed when tenants could not pick up UHF stations.

The problem was compounded when most stores in New York City sold out of antennas quickly, leaving the city’s first shortage of TV antennas in decades.

A Time Warner cable technician, several hours late for an appointment last week, told one New York City apartment dweller that the cable provider has been swamped with new subscribers in the days since June 12. He said cable installers were working overtime to accommodate the influx of new cable subscribers.

Some DTV reception problems were resolved by having viewers “double rescan” their converter boxes in order to find the new digital TV channels, the FCC said. Volunteers discovered that simple scanning was sometimes not enough. Double rescanning can clear the box’s memory of saved channels. These earlier scans may have saved channel information that is now incorrect.

The FCC last week posted five steps to do a double rescan for a converter box or digital TV. First, the box must be disconnected from the antenna. Then the owner rescans the tuner without the antenna connected. After that, unplug the tuner from the electrical outlet for at least one minute. Finally, reconnect the antenna and power, and rescan again.

The FCC also warned that in addition to making sure one uses a VHF/UHF antenna, that the antenna must be located properly. Usually, that means it should not sit on top of the TV set, but by a window. If that doesn’t work, a rooftop antenna may be needed, the FCC said.

The commission also announced that 121 stations are providing analog nightlight service in 87 markets. The service, which provides DTV transition information and emergency news and weather, will remain in effect for 30 days after the transition.

The Nielsen Company said last week that 2.5 million households had no over-the-air television signal two days after the transition was complete. Though there were slight ratings declines during that time, Nielsen was reluctant to blame the DTV transition. It could be, the company said, the result of warmer weather or fewer major sports events on the air.