Dramatizing the DTV Transition

Giving Analog Viewers a 10-second Burst of Static
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Are your viewers a little vague on what the transition to digital TV means to them? Maybe the answer is to show them.

KGMB-TV in Honolulu gave viewers of its May 19 newscasts a sneak peak of what they will see on Feb. 17, 2009, if they fail to upgrade their analog TV sets by the FCC's deadline for high-power stations to switch to digital broadcasting.

For just 10 seconds at the end of its 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts, the station broadcast a screen full of static on its analog channel. That way, viewers who saw no interruption in the picture broadcast by the station could be clear that their TV was displaying the digital signal instead.

"There was a lot of noise, a lot of information out there, and we weren't sure if people were really clear on what's going to happen and what it's going to look like," News Director Chris Archer said. He and Chief Engineer Mike McCarthy hatched the plan after hearing about a nearly identical test conducted by KVBC in Las Vegas on May 2.

KGMB didn't actually switch off its analog transmission. Rather, it broadcast a graphic of "simulated static" with the information on how to get more information from the National Association of Broadcasters' DTV Answers program at 888-DTV-2009 or www.DTVanswers.com. "We also kept the audio up, so viewers could hear the anchors explaining why they were seeing static," McCarthy said.

To help everyone understand what all the fuss was about, KGMB also put an analog TV on the set so that digital TV viewers could see the burst of static on the picture within the picture, with the anchor standing next to it.

Archer said he thought the test was particularly relevant to Hawaiians. "We're out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and there's a certain feeling of isolation from what's happening at the FCC and events on the mainland," he said. "So we wanted to give people an actual sense of what will happen rather than just reading about it."

Although most viewers already get their TV through a cable system that makes the over-the-air digital broadcast irrelevant, many also have an extra TV in the kitchen or the garage that's not connected to cable and might or might not be DTV compatible, Archer said. With promos over the weekend leading up to the test, KGMB encouraged viewers to turn on all the TVs in their home and check them all over the course of each of its newscasts.

There were a few surprises, such as the calls that came in from customers of the DISH Network, which turned out to be rebroadcasting KGMB's analog signal rather than the digital one. Those viewers also saw static, but not because of any issue with their sets, McCarthy said.

"And then there were some people who were pretty unclear about the whole thing, as clear as we tried to make it," McCarthy said. He wound up spending some time with individual viewers on the phone trying to explain that if they had seen a normal issue, their set was fine, but if they had seen the simulated static, it was not.

In a few cases, McCarthy even wound up running an "on demand test" for viewers while they were on the phone, by displaying the station's "bug" (the logo that appears superimposed on a corner of the screen) on the analog broadcast only, so that if the person whom he was talking with saw it, he could tell them they needed to buy a converter box or a new TV.

KGMB plans to repeat the test closer to the time of the February 2009 switch. "There's going to be more tension and more noise on this," Archer said.

Similar tests are in the works for stations in the Orlando and Omaha markets, NAB spokesperson Shermaze Ingram said. "I can't say the idea originated with NAB, but we've certainly encouraged it since it started," she added. "It's clear that a lot of the work is going to have to be done at the local level, and these stations are taking the lead."

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