Mary Robinson is all about real-world information on the switch to digital television signals. The success of the DTV switch will depend on regular folks understanding new technology and getting it running in their homes. Ms. Robinson is weighing in on those nitty-gritty details, sharing her enthusiasm for TV-signal technology with those who are less technically inclined. She’s developed an expertise through years of hands-on experimentation, pulling in signals from the rooftop of her Texas home. Now she’s a resource for consumers struggling with the digital switch. We discovered Mary right here on TVWeek.com, where she reliably dispensed information in the comments section of this story, First Digital TV Converter Box Wins Government Approval about the digital switch. Let’s keep the conversation rolling!



Digital Transition Answers

August 2008 Archives

WHO Has Viewers’ Backs in Digital Transition

August 28, 2008 3:39 PM

On Monday, WHO-TV conducted a test to help its viewers determine if they’re ready for the transition to digital television. About 18% of the Des Moines, Iowa, market gets its television signals over-the-air.

WHO ran a banner with a text crawl about a third of the way up the screen, asking viewers to tune in to the digital channel to see the program without the banner; if they could not, they were not ready for the conversion to digital broadcasting. I felt this was such an innovative way to inform the public.

I spoke by phone this morning with Dale Woods, the VP and general manager of WHO-TV. I wanted to know how Monday’s digital transition test went.

“Fantastic” was his one-word response to that question. He said the test created a lot of interest among the analog viewers of the station, and that it really drove home the idea that the transition is coming and people need to get ready for it.

Mr. Woods said the station staff had looked for a way to allow viewers to check all the televisions in the house without it being too much of an inconvenience to anyone. “Other stations that have done tests have just turned off the transmitter for a minute or two. That did not give people enough time to check out all of their TVs, and they had to be watching at the time of the test,” Mr. Woods said. “With our test running all day, it didn’t matter if they tuned in the morning shows, or afternoon soaps, or the late shows. Whenever someone turned us on, they were able to determine if they were ready or not, and if not, where to go to get help with the transition,” he added.

He said there were two types of callers to the station. One group just wanted to know more about the transition and how to get the coupons for the boxes.

The other group of viewers originally had felt they had taken all of the steps needed to receive the digital signals but, instead, learned they were still watching analog. The engineers at WHO-TV were there to assist the callers in walking them through their systems to find where the problems were, and to get them to the digital broadcast.

“We are going to be here for our viewers every step of the way,” Mr. Woods said, “and I think we proved that with this test.”

Once again, I would like to salute Mr. Woods and the whole team at WHO-TV for an outstanding job of keeping the public informed on the transition from analog to digital television.

Des Moines' WHO-TV Helps Viewers Pass Digital Test

August 25, 2008 10:01 AM

According to a press release from WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, a test is being conducted from 5 a.m. until midnight today on broadcast analog channel 13.

During the test, a banner will be run about one-third of the way up the screen that will inform the viewer that the transition to digital broadcasting is coming. They will be instructed to tune to WHO-DT digital channel 13.1. For those who cannot tune in to the digital channel and, thus, fail the test, there will be information in the banner on what to do to make the transition.

"We feel it is important to help our viewers be as prepared as possible for this transition in television," said WHO Regional VP/General Manager Dale R. Woods. "We wanted a way to break through the clutter of informational messages and really target those people we know it will impact."

According to Mr. Woods, the idea was hatched about a month ago at a leadership meeting. "It is one way to help viewers understand how prepared they are," he added.

I would like to applaud the management at WHO-TV for thinking outside the box and coming up with a way that seems to be unique in getting the point across that this is coming whether we like it or not.

Of course, the two translator stations for WHO-TV, K27CV in Ottumwa and K66AL in Clarinda, will not be affected at this time because of their low-power status.

Keeping Your Signal Strength Up

August 21, 2008 5:50 PM

I would like to review some of the things that we have talked about on the different forums these last few months.

First of all, I want to encourage anyone who may need to depend on over-the-air television for any reason to go ahead and get set up for the digital transition now. We are in the waning days of summer, and a lot of you who live up in the northern reaches of the U.S. soon will be facing winter. I can’t think of anything more miserable than trying to put up an antenna, or add a signal boosting pre-amp, during February in Michigan, Maine, North Dakota (or South Dakota, for that matter), Montana or a lot of other places. And believe me, I know that you who are down here in the South are waiting for cooler weather to start your projects, but please don’t put them off any longer than you have to.

Signal strength is measured in units called decibels, abbreviated dBs. They usually are shown as a negative number. TVFool.com suggests a signal strength of at least -110 dBs at the antenna is necessary to be able to drive the tuner. But this is dependent on the sensitivity of the tuner. Unless your tuner is really sensitive in your digital equipment, that will not be nearly enough signal strength to get a picture.

I have found that a signal strength somewhere in the -90 dB range is more real-world signal strength. This is the signal strength at the antenna. For the tuner to be able to use it, it will need amplifying.

At the transmitting antenna, the signal strength would be designated as 0. The farther away you are from the transmitter, the more signal loss you have (-dBs). Signal strength also can be affected by terrain, buildings, trees and other obstacles between the transmitter and your antenna. Even the wall between the transmitter and that attic antenna will cause signal loss (5 dBs in some cases). That is why outside is better than inside, and the higher the antenna is over those obstacles, generally, the better.

If you need a pre-amplifier, be sure to pick one that is very low-noise. Pre-amps are mounted close to antenna. In an analog signal, noise looks like snow. For a digital tuner to lock on to the signal, it would have to have the equivalent of a clear, no-snow analog signal. Most Channel Master pre-amps are very low-noise. A noise rating of 0.5 dB is excellent and 2 dBs is very good.

Amplifiers should be linear. They should boost what is put into them and nothing more. If there is too much amplification, then they can become nonlinear and overload the tuner. The good news is that overload almost never causes damage to the tuner.

If you add an amp, and the reception gets worse, you may have a condition known as overload. This has happened to me. I know from experience.

The amplification side of the pre-amp also is measured in dBs. This is called gain. Antennas, too, always have a gain factor built into them. How much gain depends on their type and construction. Finding the gain rating of an antenna is not always an easy task. A lot of the time, an antenna will be merely listed as a medium-gain or high-gain antenna. The Channel Master model 3671 high-gain, deep fringe antenna has a gain rating of 5.6 dBs on channels 2-6 (VHF—low), 10.9 dBs on channels 7-13 (VHF—high) and 10 dBs on channels 14-69 (UHF).

When figuring the total gain of a system, this number for the antenna does not change. When figuring total gain, you would take the gain rating of the antenna and add the gain rating for the pre-amp, which for the CM 7777 pre-amp is 23 dBs on VHF (low and high) and 26 dBs on UHF. Then you would start deducting the loss of gain.

RG-6 is the preferred standard for coaxial cable. RG-6 has a gain loss of about 1dB for every 18 feet of length. Keep your coax runs as short as possible. RG-59 has a lot more loss of gain per foot, so stay away from it.

A one-to-two splitter will cost you 3 dBs. A balun, also called a transformer, or matching transformer will cost you about 1 to 2 dBs. Every 3 dB of gain loss equals half your signal strength.

For example, a station that puts a -80 dB signal at your Channel Master 3671 antenna will be increased by 10 dBs on UHF channel 20 (this is an approximation only). So you now have a signal strength of -70 dBs. Adding the CM 7777 pre-amp adds another 26 dBs. So we are now at -44 dBs. If you have a 54 foot RG-6 cable run down to the TV, then you would deduct 3 dBs loss for a total of -47 dBs. If you split that somewhere in the line, then you lose another 3 dBs, for an end signal strength of -50 dBs, and so on.

You can eliminate the loss from a splitter by using what is called a distribution amp, which typically comes in a one-into-two or a one-into-four version.

So there you have our review at the six-month mark before the transition. And just a reminder, there may be a pop quiz next week!

Support your local LPTV broadcasters!

So Simple Any TV Fool Can Use It

August 18, 2008 12:21 PM

I have been made aware of a most useful Web site for calculating the possibility of receiving digital television stations. TVFool.com contains a lot of useful information interpreting and analyzing just how much signal strength there will be near ground level at any address that is input to the search engine.

TV Fool will create a list of all stations that it computes are receivable at any address that is entered. A list can be created for analog signals, digital signals or a combination of the two. The list can be further configured for stations before or after the digital transition.

The list will include the station’s call sign, the actual broadcast channel, the virtual broadcast channel for digital stations, the network affiliation, the effective radiated power of the transmitter, the estimated signal strength near the ground at the input address, the distance to the transmitter, the true compass direction to the transmitting antenna, the magnetic compass direction to the transmitter for ease of aiming the antenna, the height necessary for minimal useful signal strength and the antenna height needed for “line of sight” reception of the signal. This very detailed chart is a good estimate of the anticipated successful signal reception.

Go to TV Fool’s signal locator page to find stations available for any given address.

Be aware that the signal strength values are listed or given in negative numbers. This means the lower numbers are actually the stronger signals. For an example: A station with an expected signal strength of -30 Db would be a stronger signal than a station with an expected signal strength of -85 Db.

I find that the listing of stations is more current that those listed on the Antenna Web site, although I did find that TV Fool lists only stations that are licensed or have approved applications, and not those that have applications pending.

Along with the signal locator, TV Fool offers the most detailed coverage maps I have found anywhere. The coverage maps give a color-coded overlay of estimated signal strength onto a Google map, a Google satellite image or a hybrid of both. Any station call sign can be input for a search of the coverage of the station’s signal, and you can choose analog or digital signals for the station.

The color codes can be interpreted as follows: White: Watch out for signal overload if using an amplifier. Red/Yellow/Green: Generally stronger signals that may be received with an amplified indoor or medium-gain attic or outdoor antenna. Cyan: Weaker, but still usable signals that may require a high-gain outdoor antenna and possibly a signal amplifier. Purple: Signals that are quite weak and may take some effort to receive.

I have found TVFool.com to be a fun and informative Web site, and I believe a lot of good information can be extracted from it if you are having difficulty receiving digital signals.

What's on Top of TV Towers, Anyway?

August 13, 2008 4:24 PM

I came across some interesting information the other day that I thought I would pass on to you.

We’ve all seen the broadcast towers keeping vigilant watch over this great land of ours, with their comforting rhythmic red lights throbbing throughout the night, or the towers that have the pulsating and piercing white strobe lights silently but pointedly announcing their presence.

But have you ever wondered exactly what was on top of those tall and lean sentinels? I had always wondered what the antennas looked like that were mounted on top of these giants.

I gained some insight into that when I was researching KITU-TV and KITU-DT. I found the specifics on a dual adjacent channel antenna that KITU was proposing for its analog and digital broadcast needs. The digital is on channel 33 and the analog is on channel 34.

The antenna is 47.8 feet tall (50.8 feet tall when you include the lightning rods) and has a red warning light on top. It is 16.4 inches in diameter and has an aluminum climbing pole (I presume to change the light bulb. No way! Not me!). It is bolted to the tower with 16 1¼-inch bolts on a 20-inch bolt circle, and it’s painted aviation orange.

The analog transmitter inputs 29.25 kilowatts of power for an ERP (Effective Radiated Power) of 1,170 KW and the digital transmitter inputs 12.5 KW for an ERP of 500 KW. There is an application pending to go to an ERP of 1,000 KW.

But here is the real kicker, and this I would have never guessed: The antenna weighs 8,400 pounds. That’s more than 4 tons of antenna sitting on top of a tower that is rising 1,023 feet above the ground.

The Towns DTV Will Leave Behind

August 12, 2008 10:35 AM

I went on vacation with a my best friend in late March and early April last year and we wandered aimlessly around Colorado for a little over two weeks. Being that we are both flatlanders and inexperienced with snow, it was a real treat to be able to experience true winter weather.

We went snowmobiling, which was a blast. And we took ski lessons, which looking back on it, was a lot of fun, but truthfully not very pretty. My friend spent most of the day trying to unlearn water skiing techniques. I will say that we both made it down the bunny hill successfully, but that was about it.

We stayed two nights in Gunnison, Colorado in a little mom and pop motel in town. It was a really nice little place, clean and comfortable. However, in the room was something that I had not seen in a motel or hotel in probably at least 35 years ... The room had a television set that was hooked up to rabbit ears! No cable. No satellite. Just the built in rabbit ears that came with the TV.

We were able to receive seven different television stations that night, and reception was, I thought at the time, surprisingly good. We are both “24” fans (Jack saves the day and America again!) and we were able to keep up with the storyline.

When I got home, I researched the stations in Gunnison, and found out that the seven stations are all low power analog translator stations. The transmitters are located about 950 feet higher than the town using the natural terrain to obtain the height necessary to cover the community. They ranged in power from 4 watts ERP (Effective Radiated Power) for station K02LY to 24 watts ERP for station K11AT.

Watching TV in a motel by way of rabbit ears was a little like stepping back in time, and I found it quite comforting, actually.

In doing some research this evening, I found that there are no applications pending for Gunnison, Colorado to convert any of the transmitters to digital. For the time being, they will all stay analog, and I see no reason for them to convert at this time anyway.

Gunnison, it seems, is to be the little town (and there may be more) that the DTV transition forgot...

A Box With a Catch

August 8, 2008 4:46 PM

According to the Leichtman Research Group, there are 70 million televisions in the U.S. that depend on an antenna for TV programming. That is about 34% of all televisions in the country, and about half of them are not ready for the conversion to digital broadcasting.

There is a warning being issued by the Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York Better Business Bureau (BBB) that warns of a scam being advertised around the country. I personally have seen this ad in one of the largest newspapers here in the state of Texas.

The name of the company is Universal TechTronics, although it may well go by many other names. They offer a product called the "Miracle Clearveiw TV" converter box for free to the public. They advertise that the Miracle Clearveiw TV "receives channels for free" and that there is "no need to pay for cable" to get the new digital picture quality and sound. They claim that the public is to get "free TV without government coupon!"

The catch is they require the purchase of a 5 year warranty for $59 to get the "free" converter box. With the shipping and handling fees, the total cost approaches $100.

The BBB believes that the same or similar converter boxes can be purchased with the government coupon for about $20.

Make no mistake, that although they allude to the idea that the public can receive digital cable with the box, the box is for digital over the air broadcasts only.

If you have not already done so, I encourage everyone to go ahead and order your coupons and research the available converter boxes at the www.dtv2009.gov Web site.

And remember, if you get any of your programming from a low power television station, try to obtain a converter box that allows pass through of the analog signal. Please support your local independent low-power television broadcasters, for they are going to have a rough time of it after the conversion to digital.

Weathering the Storm During Digital Switchover

August 5, 2008 4:09 PM

For the third time in four years, our area was hit with a tropical cyclone this morning. It seems we have been under the gun for a while now.

First it was Hurricane Rita, which hit on my birthday in 2005. We lucked out in ’06, but were hit by Humberto, the only hurricane to reach the U.S. last year, and now today, hit again by tropical storm Edouard.

It came on shore just a few miles from where I live, here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast. I woke up this morning at 4:10 a.m. with Edouard already coming on land with rain and blustery winds. I was able to go back to sleep, but reawakened when the lights went out at 6:40 a.m. (Boo!)

The storm brought 60mph winds here and, thankfully, my RS V/U 190 antenna survived another assault.

A little after 10 a.m., I went to get my generator, which I keep stored about 25 miles inland. I kept calling my home number every few minutes, and finally got the answering machine, so I knew the lights were back on. Fortunately, I did not have to load the generator onto the trailer and haul it back to my house. The lights were off for about four hours.

All in all, it was not as bad as Humberto last year, when I was without power for almost 48 hours, or after Hurricane Rita when it took two and a half months to get reconnected to the grid.

This time, I was still able to keep up with the progress of the storm and see the radar updates (even if they were in black-and-white) from my local stations with my emergency battery-powered TV. As I have stated before in the forums, we will no longer have that option after the transition to digital-only broadcasting.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has passed a bill to allow U.S. television stations within 50 miles of the border with Mexico to continue to broadcast analog TV signals through Feb. 17, 2014. Senate bill SB-2507 had four co-sponsors and was passed by the Senate by unanimous consent. It has a companion bill, HR-5435, in the House of Representatives, introduced by Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., with 18 co-sponsors.

According to Sen. Hutchison’s press release, the bill is needed because “those along the border are especially unprepared for the DTV transition. Households that continue to watch stations from Mexico, rather than taking steps to prepare for the transition, may not receive Amber Alerts and Emergency Alert System messages.”

The press release goes on to state that without this important legislation, the lack of preparation could pose an unnecessary and avoidable public safety risk.

My question to Sen. Hutchison would be, what if you do try to prepare and still cannot receive the digital signals where you once could receive the analog warnings? What happens to the rural residents of Kansas, Nebraska and others in Tornado Alley? What happens to those who live out in the countryside in Wyoming, the Dakotas and Minnesota when the blizzard and whiteout warnings are issued? What happens to those of us who live along the Gulf Coast after the hurricane hits, and the lights are off?

Useful Gizmos and Web Sites

August 1, 2008 4:13 PM

We are at the 200-day mark here on Friday, Aug. 1, until the end of full-power analog broadcasting in the U.S.

The residents of Wilmington, N.C., have only a little over a month until digital-only broadcasting begins for them in what is supposed to be a "real-life test" for the rest of us. They are the guinea pigs in this great social experiment that the government has undertaken.

How will it turn out? It is anyone's guess. Will it be a commanding success, a total failure or something in between? I suspect there will be a mixed bag of results. A passing grade for most, but I fear a lot of people will feel they were the "resident left behind."

I am anxious to see the reports that come in about this first examination of digital-only broadcasting.

I have solved a problem that has bugged me for a long time, and I am sure some of you have experienced it if you employ an antenna rotor in your home. The problem was how to rotate the antenna if you have multiple televisions in multiple rooms, but the rotor control is upstairs, or downstairs, or just on the other side of the house.

I was roaming around Lowe's the other day and, as always, I made a loop around to what is new on the electronics aisle in the electrical department. I found a remote control antenna rotor. It is a Philips model SDW1850/17. I looked in the box, and the actual rotor unit looked exactly the same as the Radio Shack unit I already have installed for my antenna.

I bought the complete set, and came home and traded out the manual control unit for the remote control unit—they were 100% compatible. The rotor has a 12-position memory that you can set for stations in different directions.

But that does not solve the bigger problem of how to remotely control the remote control unit. I went to Circuit City and found a "Remote Control Extender," a Terk model LF-IRX. You plug in the receiver unit in the room where you want to operate from, and then plug in the base unit and place it in front of the device you want to operate. It took a little tweaking to get it to work, but it works great!

You cannot have the base unit too close to the device, nor can you have the base unit and the device you want to operate plugged into the same electrical outlet, for some reason. Also, the A/C adaptors have to be in a vertical position, and the base unit needs to be on about the same level as the device.

I now can operate the rotor remotely from the back part of the house and manually from the living room. I can check the local digital stations (NNE), the Lake Charles, La., stations (ENE), Houston stations (WSW) and the local low-powers (WNW) without having to go into the living room to change the aim of the antenna each time I want to check out stations in a different city.

I have been made aware of a few Web sites that may be useful to you. One is the FCC Web site dealing with the placement of antennas for those of you who have homeowners associations; live in condos, townhouses or apartments; or have deed restrictions that prohibit the placement of TV antennas or satellite dishes.

There is a lot of wiggle room for landlords and legal entities, but basically they cannot prevent you from erecting an antenna for TV, FM or satellite reception, or make it more costly for you to do so, as long as the guidelines are followed. There is an FAQ section and a lot of information about your right to receive local or satellite programming.

Consumer Reports has a special transition-themed Web site that has information on the various digital converter boxes.

Many of you already know of the Antenna Web site, but for those of you who don't, I will include it here for your reference. This site has a calculator for determining what antenna you might need to get the available stations in your area. However, I find it lacking in keeping up with new stations and those that have maximization applications.

Then there's the really cool TV Fool Web site, which has a lot of information including coverage maps, grids that show whether a station is line-of-sight or within broadcast horizon, and how high you would have to go with your antenna to get a usable signal. This is a really neat site. I have done a little exploring on it, but will take the time soon to see all that it has to offer.

I hope you find these sites useful and informative, and I am here to help if I can.