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Belo Declares DTV Switch A Success

Belo’s cessation of analog TV service Friday went smoothly in its 15 markets, though its stations’ call centers were busy guiding viewers through converter-box set-up and the rescanning of digital tuners.

“I’m very happy to say it was extremely successful,” says Belo VP of technology Craig Harper.

The only real issue Belo experienced was its DTV signals not being picked up by satellite providers. ABC affiliate WFAA Dallas, along with other stations in the market, had its signal dropped temporarily by satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network due to a problem at their local collection point. Belo’s station in Louisville, Ky., KHAS, experienced a similar problem, but was back on within an hour. Harper surmises it was due to the station changing its DTV channel.

“I don’t know if the receivers didn’t rescan,” says Harper. “We had identified and let all the carriers know the exact time we were changing and what frequency we were going to.”

Channel changes, particularly for previously UHF digital stations that were switching to a formerly analog VHF channel, were also driving most of the calls to WFAA and KGW Portland, which was fielding calls with other stations at a common call center.

“That’s really been the number-one call issue,” says Harper. “We’re learning that folks that have outdoor antennas or attic antennas that were getting DTV okay on UHF are having to re-orient their antennas. So we have to explain that. The other thing we’ve found is that a lot of early adopters bought UHF-only antennas.”

Belo was already well aware of this issue in Dallas, as WFAA has been broadcasting digital on VHF Ch. 9 since 1998. It switched to Ch. 8, its former analog home, on Friday, along with lighting up a new circularly polarized antenna and boosting its transmission power from 18.5 to 45 kilowatts. But other Belo stations, such as KHOU Houston, had been broadcasting digital in UHF before switching to VHF Friday.

“We were running into issues where callers had an indoor antenna with a loop, so we were walking people through that really needed rabbit ears, and how to orient them,” says Harper. “Luckily, most of our stations transmit from the same location as everyone else in the market. So we tell them to go to our station, tune it, and they’ll get everybody else, the UHFs too.”

Harper says that in Belo’s experience, viewers don’t need a rotator to pick up the UHF signals, given the common antenna sites in its markets.

“If you can see the V, you can absolutely see the U, if it’s a full-power U,” he says.

WFAA’s call-center had 1,000 calls since noon Friday, when it signed off, while the Portland central center had 1,500 calls. Harper says that’s not surprising, as three Portland stations were switching to VHF assignments.

“Those viewers are struggling to rescan and get the reception right.”

Harper spent two hours working the phones himself Thursday night at WFAA’s call-center. He says the biggest surprise wasn’t the volume of calls, but the duration of each one. Many involved walking viewers through the process of setting up a converter box from scratch, which is obviously time-intensive.

“You did not have a call that was any quicker than ten minutes, and some could go longer,” he says. “In many cases, you were speaking to an elderly person who conceptually didn’t get what was going on anyway, but went and bought the [converter] box. Our goal was not to just talk to them, but to have a successful completion to the process. So you would wait for them to go through the scan.”

Harper was particularly touched by an 82-year-old woman who called for help; he says she reminded him of his late grandmother.

“She said, ‘I’m older than electricity, and I’m older than TV. But you’ve got to help me do this. I’ve got to have my TV and my Channel 8.’”