Montana Station Completes Analog Shutoff, Offers Lessons

Move over, Wilmington. KTVH in Helena, Mont., completed its digital transition at noon Nov. 10, shutting off its analog transmitter and going all-digital.

The station had some practical motivations for the shutoff. The transmitter site, on one Hogback Mountain, is above 8,000 feet and tends to have brutal conditions in February.

The shutoff also provided good lessons for other stations facing the big event.

“Start early with planning and training of staff and volunteers who may be answering phones and helping out,” the Montana Broadcasters Association said in a note about the event. “Training is essential.”

KTVH created a manual for all employees, including converter box information. TVs and converters were set up in the station for a number of days for all employees to practice setting up.

Station General Manager Kathy Ernst said the public education initiative for the conversion included newspaper stories and ads, radio interviews, town halls and more, in addition to mentions on the TV programming itself.

KTVH also set up a phone bank, with an engineer in the room for the more difficult questions.

“Each new lesson learned (some of the questions you get will be a little strange) was shared with all of the phone bank members, making the process move along quickly and smoothly,” MAB said. “We think that it is imperative to have at least one engineer or other highly skilled technical person in the phone room because there will be questions that mere mortals will not be able to handle.”

MAB said the vast majority or callers were polite. Only a few were rude, and just one pegged the transition as a giant government conspiracy.

Most of the callers during the daytime seemed to be elderly, predominantly female and had basic issues with hooking up the boxes, MAB said. The peak calling times were during the network and local news and then on each hour, tapering off at about 20 minutes after each hour.

“Have more people available at these times,” MAB recommended.

Ernst said that many people reported problems that were fixed by the repositioning of an antenna, typically by placing it closer to a window. Also, the station found that some viewers who moved their antennas, or even dusted around them, lost the signal and had to re-adjust to regain reception.

In contrast to the common fear that many people will lose TV simply because the DTV signal does not cover all the area that the analog signal did, KTVH found the opposite—that people who could not receive the old analog signal can now get the DTV signal.

“We were very fortunate,” Ernst said. “Our footprint was basically the same.”

Among the problems with the converter boxes, the most frequent included a TV not tuned to the correct channel (usually Channel 3).

“Most people had apparently gotten the word and owned analog pass-through boxes,” MAB said. “Those that did not were frustrated by the issue of having to obtain a splitter, but generally seemed to finally get it.”

MAB also said RCA boxes seemed to be troublesome in both set up and scanning, while Zenith boxes functioned without difficulty. This may be a market by market issue, MAB speculated. Also, some people who had boxes hooked up in advance had to rescan to find the correct DTV channel.

Ernst noted that many boxes are equipped with a power-saving feature that shuts them off after four hours. Affected viewers were instructed on how to disable that feature through the menu, allowing the boxes to stay on continuously.

Dish Network missed the cutover, despite KTVH’s understanding that those details had been worked out “Seems the engineer in charge of this for the region left last week and failed to hand off the issue to another engineer,” MAB said. “Be sure to have this over-arranged and plan a back up. KTVH was able by the end of the day to have Dish bring in their sister station from Great Falls [Mont.] until Dish retunes its antenna.”

The station also had a problem with DirecTV because it does not carry the local market’s stations. “They continue to tell customers that they do not need to do anything,” MAB said. “Anyone outside of Butte-Bozeman on DirecTV with an analog TV needs a converter box! DirecTV is NOT providing a digital local signal via satellite to their viewers in any other market in Montana.”

The cable systems had absolutely no issues, MAB said.

The MAB also recommends that broadcasters download instruction manuals for converter boxes they know to be available in their markets. They should also contact local retailers and know what boxes are in stock, in order to better direct viewers. Ernst noted that the different boxes have different features and different menu formats, so the manuals enabled station staff to walk viewers through their problems.

KTVH had a complete list of local retailers and the number and type of boxes in stock, and virtually every retailer sold out. “Use this info to convince them that they are underestimating the demand for these boxes,” MAB said.

KTVH also rounded up spare DTV coupons from staff and local citizens and had them available the elderly and needy. They also purchased 25 boxes and made them available to the neediest-sounding callers.

MAB also recommends having someone go out to seniors and actually help install the boxes. KTVH had direct contact at the homes of 45 or 50 people, mostly seniors and disabled.