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DTV Switch: Reports Indicate Smooth Early Analog Shutoff

Phones are ringing steadily at the various phone banks servicing the stations that yanked their analog signals yesterday, though state broadcasting associations say it’s a manageable number.

Over 400 stations opted to switch solely to digital by the original Feb. 17 deadline, and many report the switch has been relatively smooth. Calls are pouring in from viewers, mostly trying to figure out how to rescan their boxes to receive digital signals. But a number of broadcasters say they’ve not heard from people who were taken by surprise by their local stations’ switch.

“There are complaints, yes, but it’s much more, ‘how do I hook up my box?’ as opposed to people not knowing about [the turnoff],” says Pennsylvania Broadcasters Association Member Services Director Gail Ponti. (Various stations in Harrisburg and Wilkes Barre made the jump, while the major outlets in Philadelphia are waiting until June.)

Similarly, it appears concerns about confusion stemming from the federal government’s decision to push back the DTV deadline until June are failing to emerge as a major issue. “Nothing’s come up in terms of people saying ‘we thought we had until June,’” says Rhode Island Broadcasters Association Executive Director Lori Needham, who helped the likes of WJAR, WNAC, WPRI and WLNE make the switch. “Rhode Island broadcasters have done an incredible job of getting the word out.”

After turning off its analog signals at midnight Tuesday, Wednesday had gone pretty smoothly through early afternoon for NBC affiliate WJAR Providence. The Media General-owned station, which is relying on the call-center of PBS station WSBE to field viewer questions, actually had more calls yesterday, said WJAR VP/GM Lisa Churchville.

“The day after is calmer than the day before,” said Churchville. “Yesterday, we had calls from a lot of people who even if they had the equipment in their house, they were just setting it up.”

About 7% of the Providence market relies solely on over-the-air TV, said Churchville, who estimated that only a “couple hundred households” were completely unprepared for the analog turnoff.

The WSBE call-center has 20 phones going, and was particularly active around Tuesday’s newscast, though the volume was manageable. Most of the questions were about the need to reposition or upgrade existing antennas to reliably receive digital TV signals from UHF stations like WJAR, which used to broadcast analog TV on VHF channel 10 but transmits DTV on UHF Ch. 51.

“The single greatest concern was antennas,” said Churchville. “You need a good UHF antenna. We’ve been talking about the need for a good UHF antenna since November. But while the message about the digital converter box was very clear, the antenna message was less powerful.”

While there are no federally-subsidized coupons for antennas, most WJAR over-the-air viewers will “probably have to go out and get a better antenna than they have now” to get good digital TV reception, said Churchville, who added that WJAR points viewers to the Website for advice on suitable antennas.

Most over-the-air viewers in Providence rely on outdoor antennas because of reception challenges in the market, said Churchville. She has upgraded the outdoor antenna at her own home for DTV by purchasing a $60 Channel Master unit.

WJAR has received perhaps 75 to 100 calls over the past two weeks from viewers who were confused about the new June 12 analog turnoff date that many stations around the country will now adhere to. Churchville said there was more confusion by Providence viewers over the fact that digital signals have been available in the market for years before today, which may explain why so many viewers were hooking up their digital converter boxes at the 11th hour.

“That may have been something they didn’t completely understand, that the digital signal was already there, and they could have hooked the box up a long time ago,” she said. “Of course, some of it may be pure procrastination.”

The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association reports that stations have been getting calls “in the hundreds” since making the switch yesterday. President Michelle Vetterkind says the stations made the decision to have calls from concerned viewers placed directly to them, as opposed to common call centers, so that trained station employees could personally walk through callers’ issues right from the DMA, and offer up their knowledge of the local terrain when appropriate. “We’re trying to take care of it at the station level, with localized customer service,” Vetterkind says. “There’s been some frustration, but very little anger.”

To be sure, despite the awareness campaigns and readiness tests, numerous people woke up without functioning television; Nielsen reported this morning that 5 million American homes remain unprepared. Even those who’ve taken the campaigns to heart and obtained the converter boxes may find themselves in the dark. One viewer in Madison, Wisc. posted the following on the WMTV Website: “Any ideas why I had no signal this morning on either my digital tv or on the ones with converter boxes? My televisions all said there was no signal. I even re-scanned for channels and there was nothing for Channel 15, 15.1 or 15.2. Until this morning I had no problem getting the digital. Really a bad morning - your news show is the only one I care to watch.”

But stations are hard at work to continue knocking that 5 million down toward zero, and many awoke today to discover they’ve taken a giant step in that direction “All is well in Michigan,” says Michigan Association of Broadcasters President/CEO Karole White. “Frogs are not falling from the sky.”

KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego, had more work to do to complete the analog turnoff than most broadcasters. The McGraw-Hill station was one of a number of stations switching its digital TV channel to its old analog assignment as part of the turnoff. In KGTV’s case, it was going from UHF Ch. 25 to VHF Ch. 10.

KFMB, the CBS affiliate in San Diego, was making a similar move by going back to its original Ch. 8 assignment. KGTV and KFMB, who were joined by Fox affiliate KSWB in turning off early, coordinated their efforts so that viewers wouldn’t have to rescan their converter boxes or digital TV sets twice, explained KGTV VP/GM Jeff Block. The other three full-power stations in the market that are continuing analog broadcasts for now aren’t changing their DTV assignment, so there won’t be any rescanning required when they cease analog operations..

“When the decision was made by Washington to delay, some stations thought keeping the old date would be the easiest, while some stations are holding off [on turning off analog],” said Block. “Probably, from a customer’s point-of-view, the most important thing was for us and Ch. 8 to go at the same time, because we’re switching channels. Otherwise, viewers would need to rescan twice, and that would not have been good.”

KGTV turned off its Ch. 10 analog signal at 11:30 p.m. PST on Tuesday, then powered down its Ch. 25 DTV transmitter at 12:05 a.m. Wednesday, said Block. The station was back up broadcasting DTV on Ch. 10 by 1 a.m.

“The switchover was painless,” said Block.

KGTV had about 50 viewer calls yesterday, and as of late Wednesday afternoon had received about 125 calls from viewers regarding the turnoff. While viewer calls in recent weeks have generally been about digital converter boxes or the NTIA coupon program (KGTV has been collecting unused coupons from viewers and redistributing them to viewers who need them), the subject matter was different today.

“In the morning, 80% of the calls were about rescanning,” said Block. “Now, it’s 50% rescanning and 50% antenna issues, viewers saying ‘I can’t find you.’ Of course, some of them are trying to find us with a UHF antenna, which is really tough.”

Both KGTV engineers and non-technical personnel have been assisting viewers in reorienting their antennas. Since many converter boxes and digital TVs have signal strength meters, KGTV staffers have been able to walk many viewers through the antenna orientation process over the phone, said Block.

“Through all that, I think we’re getting about 95% of the problems solved,” said Block.