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Station Engineer Posts DTV Transition Redux

SAN DIEGO: Gary Stigall, staff engineer at CBS affiliate KFMB-TV, provided a review of the DTV transition in this Southern California city, where stations shut down analog signals Feb. 17. An excerpt of his “Lessons Learned” post at the local Society of Broadcast Engineers Web site is reproduced here:

“San Diego was among the largest TV markets in the U.S. to have many of its major TV stations transition to digital-only the evening of Feb.17,” Stigall wrote. “Major station groups backed out of their plans to transition early when it fell out of political favor. Locally, KFMB-DT needed to get off their low-power provisional DTV channel. McGraw-Hill and Tribune surely wanted the electric meter to stop spinning so fast, supporting two transmitters in an adverse economy at KGTV and KSWB, respectively.

“The vast majority of the San Diego County estimated 78,000 households with over-the-air TVs made the transition without trouble. There were hundreds who needed help.
Speaking to dozens of viewers and other chief engineers in town, here’s what I learned:

The Night Light Worked: KSWB reported fewer calls after keeping a repeating 30-minute instructional video about the DTV transition running on their analog Channel 69 station for a week.

It’s About the Antenna: With at least four transmitter sites and rough terrain, it takes a skilled engineer to design and build a proper home antenna system in this market. The vast majority of callers were trying to receive all local English-speaking TV stations with a single indoor rabbit-ears-and-UHF-loop-style antenna. With the few exceptions of people located in the center of the city in wood-framed homes using converters or receivers with the latest generation, highly equalization-adapting chipsets--receiving TV this way doesn’t work. A weak signal tolerated before became a blank screen at the bottom of the digital cliff.

Where Did the Converters Go?: Inventories of digital converters were spotty during the week leading up to the transition. Many stores appeared to have run out of converters for fear of having excess inventory. Anecdotal evidence told us that stores south of downtown fared worse, with large numbers of converters perhaps being sold to Mexican citizens for use in Tijuana, where many people are bilingual, they can receive large numbers of digital stations, and Asian imports carry a burdensome duty.

Scan and Rescan, Then Scan Again: Viewers were told to rescan on Feb. 18 for digital versions of Channels 8 and 10. But that wasn’t enough. If a viewer had an antenna on a rotator, they had to perform a complete “first birthday” style scan. Then they had to scan in ADD mode for UHF stations on Mt. San Miguel, then, depending on location, might have to scan a third time to receive English language XETV in Tijuana. Some TVs behave differently, so rescanning could delete previously found stations. Viewers with those TVs had to be instructed on how to restrict their scans to a set of physical channels while ADDing.

What Do You Mean Channel 6 is really 23?: Related to the previous item, viewers needed to know the physical channel numbers in order to properly scan channels and make sure they have the right antenna.

I Give Up: Cable, fiber, and satellite providers ran a heavy ad campaign to promote the simplicity and reliability of reception using their systems, capturing perhaps 6,000 exasperated over-the-air viewers. Many subscribed to the lowest tier of service, but providers were glad to have them.

Lifeline Rates are Not Published: Viewers calling TV stations were not aware that they could get all local TV stations, in HD, using the lowest tiered rates on cable.

Stigall’s complete post is available at