Centris: 9M Households Could Have DTV-Reception Issues

More than 9 million households could experience some digital-TV-reception problems with the switch to digital TV.

That is according to market-research firm Centris, which based that figure -- 9.2 million, to be exact -- on the 17 million households currently receiving only analog signals and its estimation that 54% of those are in "challenging reception areas."

Centris said the risk of signal problems is not spread evenly across the country, but depends on terrain, distance from towers and the sensitivity of existing antennas, which, it added, viewers may well need to upgrade along with their new digital TVs or converter boxes.

“The statistics suggest that digital-TV-signal coverage will be significantly more limited than currently anticipated and further reinforce the need for industry and consumer education on this issue,” said David Klein, executive vice president of Centris, in anouncing the findings.

The 10 markets most at risk are identified, in order, as New York; Boston (Manchester, N.H.); Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C. (Hagerstown. Md.); Seattle-Tacoma, Wash.; San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Calif.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Atlanta; and Cleveland-Akron (Canton), Ohio.

A Centris spokeswoman said the study was not paid for by any outside company.

The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), which is broadcasters' spectrum policy watchdog,  argues that Centris is exaggerating the problem.  It says Centris did not test signal strengths, but instead relied on a database of interim power and coverage levels, not on what they will be after the transition.

MSTV concedes that some consumers may indeed need new antennas. "Nonetheless, consumers should first examine reception capability with their existing antennas once stations have completed the transition," the group said in response to the Centris study. "Consumers should not be misled by 'proprietary analysis' asserting that they must purchase antennas that are more expensive or shift to pay cable, satellite or telecom video services.  The digital transition should not become an excuse by some to 'up sell' consumers with services and equipment they may not need."

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin conceded that there could be some DTV reception issues in outlying areas, perhaps affecting as much as 5% of the viewing area -- or a little over 5 million households -- although most of those viewers will not have over-the-air reception only, so the percentage would be more like one-fifth to one-quarter of that.

He also pointed out that some of the reception problems will be because people have been recieving weak signals from stations outside of their markets that they will no longer get.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) brought the antenna issue up with the chairman at this week's DTV-oversight hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee. Citing the "cliff" effect, dhe said that even if eveything went right and people got their coupons for DTV-to-analog converters and hooked them up correctly, some viewers might need new antennas, too, particularly in rural areas.

The cliff effect is when a DTV signal is too weak to be recieved. Rather than producing a snowy picture, there is no picture at all. DTV is delivered in bits of information. If a bit is strong enough to be recognized, it comes through fine. So a formerly snowy picture will come in crystal-clear. But on the other end of the spectrum, a snowy picture that is too weak for the set to tell the bits apart won't come in at all.

Klobuchar asked whether the FCC was trying to educate those folks who might lose some signals and need new or different antennas. Martin said the problem was that it would be hard to identify who those people were until they hooked up their boxes or new TVs, although he pointed out that the consumer-electronics and broadcast industriues teamed up on a Web site to help viewers try to figure out if they will need new antennas.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.