Thursday, September 11, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? Where Things Stand

Nothing too dramatic has happened in the last couple of days, but we do have more information about the problems people were calling up about. First, this article from Broadcasting & Cable reveals that were many more calls than previously mentioned, almost 800 to the FCC hotline alone the first day. Local hotlines were also busy, as this Multichannel News story shows. But (as was also mentioned previously) the vast majority of these people had not been blindsided by unexpected change. They had gone ahead and done what the avalanche of information that they had been seeing everywhere told them to do, and it wasn't working According to the Multichannel News piece, a lot of calls to the local hotlines were due to users failing to program their new converter boxes by scanning for channels.

These were for the most part solvable problems, which is probably why the local media don't seem to be reporting any growing public outrage or calls to turn back the clock (but I'll keep checking on that for a while yet). The local Wilmington government is doing what it can, including using firefighters to help residents install their boxes correctly (linked article includes video). Part of the problem can be traced to the public education campaigns themselves -as Jim Heartney commented (in the comments section of my previous post),:
... many consumers didn't realize that digital was already available, so they waited until the last minute to try out their converters.. [this] was caused by many of the awareness spots saying things along the lines of "digital is coming" rather than the more accurate and helpful "digital is here right now." Many of the spots I've seen had this problem. One that didn't was one I saw on PBS (featuring the "This Old House" guys) that correctly presented all the most important information and didn't just punt to a website, unlike some of the other spots that ran on commercial TV stations.

But one problem showed up that was not as easily solvable - bad reception. The Broadcasting & Cable piece I referenced at the beginning of this post showed that the FCC hotline was only able to resolve a small number of reception-related problems, leaving a lot of people on the losing end of this transition. Another thing the article mentioned was that the digital signal from WECT (ironically, the station that had led the way in local coverage of the transition) does not seem to go as far as the old analog signal. Jim Heartney again:

The reception problems have always struck me as being a more difficult area to address than the converter box issue. Reception will vary by location, and plenty of locations (my house, for example) get mediocre digital reception off rabbit ears. Further, some rabbit ears work better than others (I had widely varying results with two different rabbit ear setups I tried here). Dealing with that takes time, as consumers will need to try different things to pull in good signal. If more of the affected people were aware that they can try out their converters right now and get their issues dealt with in advance of the deadline, we'd have much less hassle than if large numbers think they have to wait till February to try digital out.

The conclusion I reach from reading these two articles is that a fair number of residents are going to have to invest in better antennas, an additional cost that none of the information being widely disseminated even hints at. Given that over-the-air viewing is the only way many low-income people can afford the most affordable form of entertainment that's available to them, that's not particularly good news. Neither is the fact that the Wilmington area is geographically flat, which means that reception problems are likely to be more severe in many other areas.

One more note to wrap this up. While there hasn't been a huge amount of mass-media coverage of this story in this country (other than that NBC Nightly News story, one group of people do seem to be paying attention - the Japanese, who have their own transition coming up in a few years and who had crews in town to film the switchoff ceremony, as reported here and here (this also has video). Let's hope they stuck around long to take note of some of these problems.

I will do at least one more post on this topic between now and my next monthly update, which will contain any additional developments as well my thoughts on what has been learned from Wilmington's experience.


At 4:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WECT is not a unique case; there are many stations that have been on low-VHF channels (2 - 6) since the 1950's and these reached a vast area in the analogue era. Most are long-established, respected network affiliates and all are going to find a huge drop in coverage area after DTV transition forces them onto higher frequencies - usually UHF, as those are the only channels not to already be full. Most of the largest "deep-fringe" antennas - a full-size outdoor antenna on a tower and a motor - are rated "100 miles VHF 60 miles UHF". Telling viewers that they'll need to increase that from a 25' tower to a hundred feet tall or more to get the same results in fringe areas from these stations is not going to win any popularity contests, so most PSA's ignore this thorny problem and hope the question goes away.

The VHF band (or at least the low-VHF channels 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) should never have been forced digital. They were working well - often snowy but watchable beyond eighty miles - in 1953-stile analogue. They're all but unusable in digital. Better to leave the HDTV to stations already on UHF, where it might actually improve things.


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