Hill Keeps DTV on Front Burner
Oversight hearing and Wilmington test prompt debate
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/21/2008 8:00:00 PM
One thing about the debate over the progress of the DTV transition is becoming abundantly clear: If it doesn't go well, blame will be passed around a whole lot swifter than converter box coupons.
The House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, which is hoping to wrap up its business this week, is trying to press the point that primary stakeholders in the transition must do everything possible to prevent viewer—and voter—backlash.
Simply calling a DTV oversight hearing prompted a flurry of activity, including the release of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding fault with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a letter from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to electronics retailers asking where all those vaunted $40 DTV converter boxes are, and the decision finally to allow nursing-home residents and post-office-box owners to get converter box subsidies.
Giving another push last week was Martin, who said that about 15% of TV stations will suffer significant viewership losses when they switch to digital and their coverage areas change. That number reflected viewership losses suffered by WECT, the NBC affiliate in Wilmington, N.C., whose coverage area in digital is significantly reduced.
Martin also told Congress that FCC engineers were working on identifying the markets where there would be significant viewer losses and fix them, perhaps by allowing translators or boosters to get the DTV signal to those viewers.
According to a spokesman for Martin, the chairman clarified after the hearing that he was referring to viewers within an old analog coverage area, and not those outside the market who might have been getting a signal to which they technically weren't entitled. He was also only talking about those viewers in a station's former analog footprint that could not get a similar station from an adjacent market.
In the wake of the Wilmington test, legislators and industry witnesses agreed that the DTV education campaign must move from general awareness to a more nuts-and-bolts approach, particularly encouraging viewers to set up and test their converter boxes now. As NTIA acting chief Meredith Atwell Baker put it, “Apply, buy and try.” The FCC released new PSAs helping walk viewers through those issues.
Before the House leaves for the year by the end of next week (or so it hopes), Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) want to secure a plan in writing from the NTIA on how the agency will deal with an expected boost in DTV converter box coupon requests in the waning days of the transition. A new GAO report claims that the NTIA needs such a plan and doesn't have one.
The NTIA did get props from the Hill when it announced a change on converter box eligibility rules, allowing nursing-home residents and people who use P.O. boxes to apply for coupons. With rural and elderly viewers being two of the key target populations in the DTV switch, there was no small irony in the fact that since NTIA had defined households per the Census Bureau, nursing homes and P.O. boxes did not qualify. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced last week they would be included when the new rules go into effect in about four weeks.
But it was not just the government that wanted to stake out its DTV ground in what is likely the last House DTV oversight hearing until January, only weeks before the Feb. 17 transition date. National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow used the hearing to warn of the “gathering storm” of retransmission consent negotiations. In part, he was pitching a cable proposal for a several-months-long retrans quiet period surrounding the DTV transition, one that would preclude broadcasters from pulling their signals during the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.
Parrying that thrust was David Rehr, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who spoke up for a much shorter quiet period—four weeks—that would not preclude pulling those games.
The FCC is currently considering the dueling requests, with Martin proposing a slightly longer period than the NAB—protecting the Super Bowl—but closer to Rehr and company's plan than to cable's.
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There are many converter boxes on the market, with more coming. As with any new technology, their quality, efficiency and price vary considerably. So the selection of a converter box will be an important variable to desired digital reception.
For those viewers who have not yet purchased a converter box, Consumer Reports has upgraded their ratings on some of the available converter boxes at: consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/televisions/digital-tv-converter/ratings/dtv-converter-boxes-ratings.htm
Here is a quick summary of a lot of models: consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/televisions/digital-tv-converter/overview/dtv-converter-box-guide.htm
Some Off-Air viewers who buy a converter box have problems receiving the same stations digitally with the box installed as they did without it or get no broadcast stations at all. Excluding the possibility that they have a defective converter box or have installed it incorrectly, there are many more likely reasons why this happens:
1. They have an old antenna that has corroded over the years.
2. They have the wrong antenna (VHF only) for UHF reception where most of the digital broadcast signals are and will be located.
3. They may have received an acceptable analogue picture for years, but a) the broadcast station analog signal was not that powerful in the first place (signal power or distance) producing a little snow and/or b) the old antenna is not powerful enough to receive and send a strong digital signal to the digital tuner in the converter box. Unlike analogue, no strong signal, no picture, just a blue screen.
4. Many of the TV antenna designs now in use and on the market today such as the Yagi and rabbit ears have technology roots going back 30 years or more and may not work well with the digital chip sets in converter boxes.
5. The analog signal passed through trees, but the digital signal passing through tress, especially through pine trees, will not be strong enough to be decoded by the digital tuner.
6. Their antenna is aimed at the old analog tower location and the digital towers have been relocated or it was aimed wrong all these years, but received a marginal analogue picture.
7. The digital stations may be broadcasting in low power until the transition.
8. If you live less than 5 miles from the station, you might need an attenuator to reduce the signal strength and prevent overloading the tuner. If you live more than 35 miles from the towers, you may have to consider an antenna amplifier.
9. They may be dealing with multi-path in urban locations. Multi-path (bounced signals) is caused by buildings, hills and any other hard object in the line-of-sight to the broadcast towers. They cause signals to reach the antenna out of phase, confusing the ATSC (Digital) chip set in the converter box (or digital TV set tuners. Try re-aiming your antenna.
10. They may have not performed the correct search procedure on their TV to find the digital stations. Many stations have changed channels, mostly to UHF (14-69)
11. The old incoming cable and/or connectors may be bad. These do not last forever.
But a bigger variable is the need for the right antenna where Off-Air TV reception starts.
Viewers should certainly try their old antenna first. Itâ€™s true that any of these older antennas will pick up some signals, maybe all the broadcast signals a viewer wants to receive, depending on their location. If theyâ€™re getting all the OTA channels they want and some of their local stations arenâ€™t changing from VHF to UHF or UHF to VHF, than theyâ€™re good to go.
In order to know if youâ€™ll have the right antenna or combination of antennas, viewers can look up â€œDTV Tentative Channel Designations for the First and Second Roundsâ€ at
hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_publi...-06-1082A2.pdf and â€œThird Round DTV Tentative Channel Designationsâ€ at hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_publi...-06-1675A2.pdf to find out from what channels local stations will be broadcasting after the transition.
Or go to antennapoint.com for a quick general look at a specific city and those TV stationsin close by cities within range of an Off-Air antenna.
While cable and satellite program providers will continue to serve the great majority of homes as the primary signal source, missing HD local reception, compression issues, rising costs, billing add-ons, service outages, contact difficulties, in-home service waits and no shows have left many of these subscribers looking to FREE OTA antennas as a good alternatives.
Itâ€™s correct that antennas canâ€™t tell the difference between analog and digital signals, but there are definitely certain models which have higher DTV batting averages than others. Not all antennas are equally suited for DTV. A percentage of viewers will require something a little more tailored for DTV reception.
With one of the newer and smaller OTA antennas, with greatly improved performance, power and aesthetics, viewers may also be able to receive out-of-town channels, carrying blacked out sports programs, several additional sub-channels or network broadcasts not originally available with analogue. And for those with an HDTV, almost completely uncompressed HD broadcasts, unlike cable or satellite.
And if they decide to buy a newer antenna, they should buy it from a source that will completely refund their purchase price, no questions asked, if it doesnâ€™t do the job for them.
Michael Sherman - 9/24/2008 11:13:00 AM EDT
Foods for thought!
I certainly hope they wait for the publics input. I for one am terrified
of the implications,for us all, in the advent that we go ALL digital.
We could so easily all become the latest Babylon w/our very own, US
made TOWER. ALL digital/satelite/pay connections. Still with our
freedom of speech...yelling into the wind.
Where will our local news come from? Perhaps during the next New
Orleans type crisis? Satellites work badly during storms, and some-
times are dark... for weeks or months before service can be restored.
That is if one has a satelite/cable hookup.
Many people can''t afford it, nor can they pay for the ''mini view''/little
poor people box. That number may well triple with the latest US/World
One New Orleans disabled man living, on a fixed income...
...built a home made analog tower from discarded/used parts, and
manned his homegrown local radio show around the clock, providing
the only local news for weeks to the area victims. Digital was dead.
We are faced with the inconvenient reality that the conglomerates are
lousy at local issues. They could care less...
A great deal of our right to the public air space is being stolen...for a
vulnerable new shiny object/toy from the future, that now has a sur
charge for us to pay ...in order to use what use to be... free public air
Another reality check...how often is our planet hit by comets/meteors?
How many satelites have been hit so far? When will we come a bit too
close to the OORT Clouds once again? How many satellites have been
shot down by governments?
Last, but not least,How easy would it be to fool/control the public...
The greatest winner in all this are the satelite companies. Y''all know
who the loosers...they are US.
I value choice in all things important.
Dawna Weatherly Williams - 9/24/2008 1:13:00 AM EDT
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