Thursday, September 17, 2009

This May Be The Last Post

I last posted here on July 30, promising an update on ongoing DTV reception problems "in the near future". So I'm a bit behind on that.

One reason I've been holding off is that I've been waiting for more follow-up stories. These have dried up dramatically in the last few weeks, at least as far as the news sources I've been following (Multichannel News, Broadcast & Cable, TV Week and a few others) are concerned. In fact, the last local newspaper story my sources pointed me to was dated August 17, and dealt with problems in New Jersey. As for the national situation, this August 18 article describes the FCC as continuing to work with two or three dozen stations (mostly rural) on reception issues, employing methods such as moving stations from VHF to UHF, boosting power and even moving from one VHF channel to another. What has been cleaned up in the month since I can't honestly say. You still see threads in AVS Forum's HDTV Technical forum regarding the problems individual posters are having - these are usually ascribed to something getting in the way of the signal or bad antenna placement, issues which are more important in DTV than analog, and which are sure to continue causing grief to OTA viewers going forward.

But whatever is still going on out there, it doesn't seem to be attracting much journalistic attention. For instance, the last update that I was aware of from Nielsen concerning DTV stragglers (those who had not yet converted) was on July 29th (98.9% adoption rate at that time). The September 4 follow-up - which updates that percentage to 99.4% - wasn't reported on (I just found it a couple of minutes ago). Of course, with those kinds of numbers, that pretty much is the end of that story.

Which means I really don't have much to report on these days. I will keep looking, and if I find a story that provides a significant update (or an interesting piece of analysis dealing with how DTV has changed TV viewing), I'll post it here - but I have no idea how often (or even if) that will happen. If you know of ongoing problems or other developments in your area, please leave a comment on this post.

I do intend to keep this site up as a historical record. For almost three years (starting in March 2006) I produced a monthly update showing how this story evolved over time, and it may be of some interest to researchers. For most of that time, those monthly updates also chronicled the rise of HDTV, so that material may of some interest as well. Other than that (and the possible occasional post as I mentioned above), my work is done here.

Thanks for dropping by, it's been fun!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

One More Milestone

With the Nielsen people saying that DTV-unready homes are down to 1.1% of the total, we have now cut the number in half from the one that was reported two days after the transition.

However, that remaining 1.1% is about to lose out on one important transition tool - the converter box coupon ends tomorrow, (7/31/09 at midnight) so if anyone has been holding off, now's the time to make the application.

Of course, if you've been living without broadcast TV for more than a month already (and with the analog "nightlights" having gone out weeks ago) perhaps you've discovered that you just don't need it.

This leaves reception problems as the largest remaining issue. I'll update that situation in the near future.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Unfinished Work of the DTV Transition

If you go by the mass media, the story of the DTV transition has been told. I'll be surprised if I see another story on its aftermath on network news. Perhaps there'll be a small bit in the Business/Tech section of the newspaper (by and large, the story never graduated from there to the front page).

And yet there is still work to be done.

The two most obvious areas involve hooking up the stragglers and restoring lost reception. The stragglers issue will probably resolve itself fairly soon. Already we have gone from 2.5 million non-DTV households on June 14 to 2.1million on June 21, a gain of 400,000 households in a week. Luckily for the remainder, coupons are still available until July 31.

Loss of reception may take somewhat longer, even though we had plenty of advance warning from the experience of all those stations that transitioned between Feb 17 and June 12.

From everything I've read, it is clear that there is one major source of reception problems - stations going back to VHF from their original DTV assignments in the UHF spectrum. On the surface, this was an attractive idea for stations - VHF signals take a lot less power (thus, a lot less money) to go the same distance as UHF - but they are also far more subject to interference.

This has been causing unhappiness all over the place - just check out the comments attached to this TVNewsday story. "All over the place" definitely includes my place (the Boston area), as shown by the problems afflicting WHDH, our NBC affiliate. In this case, the station has actually had to reactivate their UHF signal and simulcast it with the VHF.

Elsewhere, the situation in Chigago and Philadelphia was bad enough for the FCC to send staffers to look at "all available options" to resolve things. I'm not sure what all those options are, but one thing that was done in Philly was to allow station WPVI to boost power to the maximum (30.6 kW) allowed in that region. How effective power boosts will be nationwide remains to be seen. If that doesn't fix it, what will? Perhaps more translators?The FCC does report some success with its recommended technique of double re-scanning (where you clear out the box by unplugging the antenna, re-scanning, unplugging the box itself, re-connting everything and then doing a second re-scan). This part of the story is not nearly over.

There are other issues as well. A small number of stations are actually not ready to transmit digitally and have gone dark (most are owned by one company in bankruptcy). The original Broadcasting & Cable article listed 35 stations, but four stations were later cut from the list. The FCC says it expects the stations not in bankruptcy to return to the air by the end of this year.

Challenges for some bring opportunities to others. In this case, the problems facing stations in getting their over-the-signal out to their usual OTA audience is creating an opportunity for cable, as a recent survey shows that 5% of US television households have already switched because of the transition, a number we can expect to rise if the current problems are not addressed soon.

Then we have the issue of DTV and portable devices that have previously received analog transmissions (different from "mobile DTV" that's been designed from scratch for handheld devices) . While I am just now beginning to see ads for DTV-enabled portable TVs (there was a $99 set advertised in today's CVS flyer), the installed base of portable TVs (long popular amongst campers and tailgators) has a problem - you need a battery-operated box that is small enough not to negate the advantages of portability. And if you're a camper who has installed your TV in your RV, you have your own set of issues. Then there are even smaller devices - radios that receive the audio portion of TV broadcasts. To illustrate, here's a story from someone who thought he was completely prepared for the transition, only to find something missing the first time (after June 12) he took his clip-on radio with him while running.

It should also be remembered that there is, in fact, still some analog broadcasting left, namely the low power stations. These have small audiences that have just gotten smaller, what with many converter boxes not having analog pass-through circuitry and with cable (which doesn't have to carry LP stations) nibbling away at the OTA audience. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps has just requested $1 million in part to prepare for these stations' transition (and the timetable for that is something I need to do more research on).

So, in fact, the story is not quite over yet, and there are still things to talk about. I don't have any regular publishing schedule in mind, but as significant events occur in the "wrapping up" of the above stories, I will come on from time to time to update their status. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

News From All Over

First, a couple of updates. The "truly huge number" I was expecting from the main FCC call center in fact turned out to be pretty big (317,450) but actually only about twice as big as the previous day's record (based on reports as of 2 PM, I had expected it to be three times as big or greater).

One thing I left off the "signoffs" post was the most impressive production of them all, yet not tied to any particular station. I'm talking about Univision's half-hour DTV countdown special from 11:30 to midnight from Times Square. This featured a Spanish-language countdown screen on the same building that counts down New Year's Eve, plus extensive reports on DTV mixed in with some of their regular news. I'm going to save this one in hopes that someday I'll know enough Spanish to translate it for myself.

As far as the rest of the news goes, rather than trying to weave a narrative around many overlapping accounts, I'm just going to give you a list of stories I haven't used yet from Friday and Saturday. Here it is:

A story on businesses that will benefit from the transition.

A report of the first NYC stations to go off the air Friday.

What happened when Raycom's 44 stations left the air.

Various Friday reactions, covered by the New York Times and Broadcasting & Cable.

FCC Reaction.

NAB comments about call volume to stations (as of 8 PM)

Saturday overviews from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and CNET.

A TVNEWSDAY editorial commending broadcasters and government on a job well done.

Another New York Times story covering the author's efforts to get better reception.

And that's how things went. My next post will deal with the unfinished work of the transition (restoring lost reception, et al) and talk about the kinds of stories I'll still be looking to tell here. That could be this weekend, but more likely sometime later.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Some Station Sign-Offs

Here in Boston, everything just blinked out without fanfare, but thanks to the diligent posters at AVS Forum's Stories of the Digital Transition thread, I now have a nice little collection of station sign-off ceremonies to share with you. Here's the list:

Twin Cities Public Television Hosted by the first person seen on KTCA in St. Paul, Minn. back in 1957.

KCPQ 13 (Seattle, WA)

KSTW 11 (Seattle, WA)

WYFF 4 (Columbia, SC)

WCCB 18 (usually referred to as FOX Charlotte, Charlotte, NC) Features Paul Stanley from KISS flipping the switch!

WLTX 19 (Columbia, SC) Picture fades to an LP analog station's very fuzzy signal.

WTMJ 4 (Milwaukee, WI) Switch thrown by the second engineer hired back in 1947.

WITI, FOX 6 (Milwaukee, WI) Features the national anthem over a station-history montage.

WISN 12 (Milwaukee, WI) Features footage from previously-aired station-history documentary, plus an old test pattern.

WMVS 10/WMVT 26 (Milwaukee, WI) Features 1957 first-day signon, national anthem over scenic montage, old test pattern and comments by station manager.

KTLA 5 (Los Angeles, CA) Another station vet throws the switch. Reporter incorrectly states that TVs with converter boxes will receive HD!

In addition, you can find lots of videos (from Feb. 17 to now) by going to YouTube and searching on "analog shutdown".

My next post will be in the next few days and consist of another link list of stories generated since Friday. The one after that will deal with the problems some people are having (such as reception). After that? We'll see...

Just like Y2K???

So America woke up to no analog (full-power analog, that is) this morning (it's still Saturday as I write this, although it will be past midnight when I post it) . How smoothly did that go? Well, of the three major network newscasts, only CBS even bothered to run a story about it today. Mostly it was about how people who had waited to the last minute to act were now rushing around buying boxes and such, although it also made a slight mention of reception problems and showed Americorps volunteers coming to the aid of a grateful senior citizen. ABC and NBC didn't even consider it worth their while.

Part of the CBS story had FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein saying that the transition had come out more like Y2K than the Bay of Pigs, and I've already seen "Y2K" linked to the transition in that they were both "non-events".

And there is one way in which that's true. In my programming days, I worked on a Y2K project (for a large insurance company), and lemme tell ya - the general public has absolutely no idea of the enormous amount of time and effort that went into making Y2K a non-event. That's what we got for succeeding - no one thinks we actually accomplished anything.

So I wouldn't be completely shocked if history remembers this the same way, and future generations wonder why we "wasted" so much money on coupon programs, PSAs and so forth. Trust me, if we hadn't they'd be wondering why we hadn't taken action.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Early Returns

By the time I finish this post, the analog age will be over. But for now, I'll just deal with the information I have so far, and deal with the rest later.

In general, the terminations we've seen today seem to be going the way of earlier terminations - lots of calls, but mostly from people who need help with the process, not people who have been taken by surprise. As anyone familiar with human nature would guess, there've been plenty of procrastinators, with almost 320,000 coupon requests coming through on Thursday (that's a week or so without TV right there). Call volume to the FCC has been furious, with over 120,000 calls logged by 2 PM (the day before, there had been 37,187 calls by that time, but 149,206 for the whole day, which suggests a truly huge final number for Friday). In fact, they had to add another 1,200 operators after FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell tested the system and couldn't get through for 20 minutes.

But both at the FCC and at this No. Carolina call center, the calls were far more about rescanning, hookup problems and so forth. As stated above, a very small percentage of the callers were unaware of what was going on.

While I'm still curious to see what tomorrow brings (many stations waited until 11:59 to switch off), especially in Los Angeles with its 250,000 unprepared households, so far people appear to be taking this in stride.

More info tomorrow, including a special post collecting some sign-off ceremonies (although sadly none from Boston - I'm disappointed in us).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Today's The Day - Sources (and One Answer)

Going through my visitor logs (biggest day yet, as you can imagine), I find the most common search query leading people here is "what time is this happening?". The simple answer is that it varies by station, and some have undoubtably happened already. From what I've seen, there should be a lot of turnoffs around lunchtime, dinnertime and finally at 11:59 tonight. There's been a certain amount of confusion as to what all the coverage referencing "midnight" referred to. It's the one that comes between Friday and Saturday, not Thursday and Friday.

There are two places I would keep checking today and over the next few days. One is the AVS Forum transition thread [now LOCKED, see update below] I mentioned in my last post. I expect that people will be contributing local reactions from all over the country there. Another is the AVS Forum "OTA" (for Over The Air) thread for your area (not all areas have one). Go to the thread index to have a look (if there's no "OTA" thread for your area, check the "HDTV" thread instead).

That's all for the moment!

UPDATE: The AVS transition thread mentioned above has been LOCKED. Two new threads have been started for news starting today - Stories of the DTV Transition for first-person accounts and A Day of Reckoning for general discussion. Check them out!