Mixed-Up Signals

Mar 8, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Despite the recent delay of the U.S. digital television transition from Feb. 17 until June 12, television stations across the country are still trying to answer consumers’ many questions, using their own airwaves and just about any other means available to them.
Questions persist about old TV sets, new antennas, coupons for converter boxes and what it all means for the viewing audience affected by the switchover from analog signals.
The Nielsen Co. estimates about 4.4% of homes, or nearly 5 million American households, aren’t ready for the change that will happen when stations turn off their analog signals and begin broadcasting solely in digital. (The Federal Communications Commission says about a third of the nation’s full-power stations have already gone all-digital.)
“We are really trying to give viewers as much information on how the transition impacts their lives and answer whatever questions they might have,” said Mark Ginther, news director of Seattle’s KING-TV, which has run many enterprise feature stories on the transition in the past year and a half.
Reporter Glenn Farley, who normally covers the aviation and technology industries at KING, has made the DTV transition his beat, contributing at least a dozen stories about it since 2007. The consumer unit also has done reports on purchasing new TV sets and how to properly dispose of old ones.
“We have transitioned from doing stories on the basic converter box to actually getting the signal,” Mr. Farley said. “Most of the stories moving forward will be focused in that direction.”
The Seattle market is what Mr. Farley calls “terrain-challenged,” because of the mountain ranges in the broadcast coverage area, making it difficult for some residents to receive a clear digital signal.
In a recent piece, he went out in the field in Olympia, Wash., with an antenna installer who measured the signal in various hilltop neighborhoods. In some areas, there was no signal at all, meaning residents there may have to erect taller towers or buy special antennas.
Beyond telecasting the DTV message, Mr. Farley and other KING staffers have participated in a number of public hearings on the transition, most organized by the city of Seattle in an effort to reach out to diverse populations, including those who don’t speak English.
In addition, the station has participated with other broadcasters in the market in synchronous digital signal testing during morning, evening and weekend newscasts—and then manning phone banks to answer viewer questions about the transition.
“The phones would just light up,” Mr. Farley said. “The response from viewers has gone up as the deadline approached. I don’t know how you could have missed this.”
“We’ve learned a lot ourselves,” Mr. Ginther said. “Portable radios that have TV sound on them won’t receive it after the conversion happens. In an emergency, if the cable or satellite goes out in severe weather, it may be important to have a converter box in the house.”
In the nation’s two largest markets, New York and Los Angeles, most of the major stations have been broadcasting a digital signal for 10 years now.
New York City stations recently mobilized to get out the word on the “official” transition under the aegis of the Metropolitan Television Alliance, a group formed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to coordinate efforts among broadcasters to replace facilities that were destroyed.
“We got seven local anchors of the 5 and 6 p.m. news to hold a press conference with Mayor Bloomberg to talk about how people could get coupons and what they had to do to prepare with the right kind of antenna in order to get covered by all the stations,” said Saul Shapiro, president of the Metropolitan Television Alliance.
“Having the mayor involved almost guarantees coverage. Also, because of his TV background with his own cable channel, he knew exactly what it was about and what it entailed,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He was the best advocate of the coming transition and simple things to prepare for.”
At KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, the primary focus of its news stories also has been making sure people knew what steps needed to be taken.
“The way people watched TV for years would change, and we have tried to give some clarity to the whole issue,” said Keith Esparros, KNBC’s assistant news director.
Mr. Esparros said there was a lot of viewer confusion between two informational Web sites, www.dtv.gov, run by the government, and www.dtv.com, which is a commercial site that sells products.
“Our goal is fairly simple. We didn’t want anyone to be without TV, with an uninterrupted stream of news, information and entertainment, from a public service or even a selfish point of view,” Mr. Esparros said.
KNBC also has done stories on disposing old television sets, from donating them to senior centers and other facilities to safely recycling them.
“We understand how difficult this transition is, and people may not understand the complexity,” said Mr. Esparros. “Changing the way millions of people watch TV is daunting. Even with the amount of PSAs on the newscast, and the live demos we’ve done, still hundreds of thousands didn’t get the message, which is part of the reason the current administration delayed the transition.”

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