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!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Day Out - Final Preparations

Tomorrow is the day when analog TV broadcasting ceases. During these last few days of the analog era, everyone involved has been making their final preparations. What have they been up to?

The FCC certainly has been busy fulfilling its oversight role in the process. They recently got an additional $10 million to fund their call center (the one that got 55,000 calls during the national soft test on May 21) at full strength (4,000 operators) beyond June 16 (on the grounds that it's better to be overprepared than underprepared). They also held a final status meeting on June 3. At that meeting, officials stated that were sufficient coupon funds and dealer inventory to satisfy consumer demand for converter boxes. Concerns were also raised, among them seasonal interference effects (acting chairman Michael Copps's own box started having problems after the leaves began showing up on the trees in springtime). There was also a plea for more stations to "nightlight" (use the analog signal for DTV education rather than simply switch off) for up to 30 days after tomorrow (here in the Boston DMA, the PBS, CBS and ABC affiliates will be nightlighting).

The FCC has also been issuing final instructions to TV stations, clarifying the conditions under which they can do their 6/12 shutdown before midnight, letting them know that they can choose between the "-TV" and "-DT" suffix for their channel name and reminding them of their responsibilities to assist viewers during the transition.

They've also partnered with vendors, stations, libraries and consumer groups to set up a large network of walk-in help centers (vendors will also be providing installation assistance). You can check what's available in your area by going here and doing a zip-code search. In addition, they've partnered with AmeriCorps (a national service program for people between the ages of 18 and 24) to provide assistance for groups such as low-income individuals, minority and rural communities and others.

Assistance is coming from other areas as well, such as Boston's Commision on Affairs of the Elderly (this Boston Globe article details a visit from one of the installers).

In my last post, I pointed out that one reason the June 12 date held was that no one in Congress would support a further delay. That doesn't mean that no one is worried, 'tho. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (the main architect of the original delay) is still urging the various parties to do more for the consumer, raising the issue of in-home assistance with the FCC, possible converter box shortages with the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the overseers of the coupon box program) and asking the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) to urge that at least one station in all 202 eligible markets to remain on in "nightlight" mode (that's twice as many as actually are doing so at the moment).

Speaking of broadcasters, they've been busy as well. The NAB held its own press conference today, and produced a figure of 1.75 million unready, much lower than Nielsen's final figure of 2.8 million (they did this by taking another survey's 2.2 million and deducting 440,000 households that were in the process of getting ready.

Broadcasters have also been informing their audiences over the air. I checked out today's late-afternoon newscasts to see how my local stations were doing. WBZ 4 had the best report, including mentions of possible reception problems and a list of local walk-in centers. They also were the only ones to mention their own shutoff time (12:30 PM). WCVB 5 also had a pretty good report. WHDH 7 had a shorter report, and if you relied on it you would think that the entire country was "switching to digital" at exactly midnight tomorrow (no mention that digital broadcasting exists today, or that other stations had transitioned months ago). I didn't see FOX 25's entire newscast, so perhaps I missed their story (I'll check their late news), or perhaps the fact that they themselves transitioned earlier makes this a less important story for them.

All of this activity, of course, is to deal with the remaining population of unready viewers. The final Neilsen numbers (2.8 million households, as mentioned above) include a breakdown of unreadiness by area, and you can see that the Los Angeles area clearly has the most, with over 250,000 (almost a tenth of the total). Perhaps that's why acting FCC chair Copps made a special visit there on Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm proud to say that Boston/Manchester fares much better with 27,704 (1.15%), although the Centris study I've mentioned a number of times indicates that our reception problems may be worse than most.

There's one more player in this game, one that stands to benefit from issues such as poor reception - cable & satellite. For cable's part, Kyle McSlarrow of the NCTA (National Cable Television Association) assured a "rapid response" to any issues that arise concerning operators' coverage of digital broadcast signals (he also had some things to say about allegations that the cheap basic service they are offering to broadcast refugees was being used as a hook to upsell new customers on more-expensive services).

And that's how things look right now, with the beginning of The Day coming in less than three hours. Tomorrow and the days immediately after should be interesting! I'll be passing on what I see as often as I can.

(NOTE: Thanks again to the posters of the AVS Forum transition thread, who have uncovered a lot of great stuff, and the Boston/OTA thread as well.)

Friday, June 05, 2009

One Week Out - Making It Official

If there was anyone left out there still harboring the hope (or illusion) that some mighty wail of anger and despair would rise up from the still unprepared and knock the transition off course again at the very last moment, those hopes have just been conclusively dashed by the President himself.

Speaking of making things official, the FCC has clarified the fact that while stations have to cease analog transmissions at midnight on the 12th, they don't have to wait until then - they can quit any time on the 12th, unless the new digital assignment interferes with an analog neighbor which has not left the air yet (in which case they have to wait until that station vacates).

According to this Broadcasting & Cable article, we'll be down to 447 analog stations by 6 PM next Friday. After midnight, 99 or so stations will run "nightlight" service (i.e. transition info only) for as long as 30 additional days. And then that will be it!