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WLS Sorts Out Signal Problems

After an initial rough start to fully DTV broadcasting, ABC O&O WLS Chicago is having an easier time of it. Chicago topped the list of calls to the FCC hotline by percentage of TV households. With relatively low operating power, market leader WLS was having trouble reaching some high-rise and downtown with a digital signal, according to an FCC staffer, who said the FCC was working on technical fixes.

VP of Local Programming Tom Hebel says the phone lines have slowed to a much more manageable level than yesterday as Chicago’s problem viewers get their converter box and antenna issues ironed out. He says there have been signal issues with viewers located 30-plus miles out—a combination of the station’s signal and viewers’ antennas.

Hebel says calls are in the hundreds Saturday, as of mid-afternoon. “It’s much better than yesterday,” he says.

The ABC station group, which selected VHF channels as the permanent home for all 10 of its DTV stations, had expected some reception problems in Chicago and New York when WLS and WABC began broadcasting DTV on their old analog VHF assignments. That's because given the sheer volume of RF transmissions in those markets, the stations are forced to transmit VHF at a less-than-optimal power level. "Soft shutdown" tests in recent weeks had revealed some reception problems in New York and Chicago, which are challenging from a reception standpoint anyway because of the "urban canyons" created by numerous skyscrapers. New York, in particular, has been hampered by the loss of the World Trade Center tower location on 9/11, and broadcasters there have been exploring single-frequency networks or translators as a way to fill coverage gaps.

"From the soft shutdowns in the last several weeks, one of the things that was revealed is the difficulty of easy reception of high-VHF signals in some of the marketplaces," says Dave Converse, VP of engineering for the ABC-owned stations. "I'm primarily talking about set-top antennas, or minimal antenna installations that haven't been upgraded for DTV."

WPVI, which is broadcasting on Ch. 6 in Philadelphia, is able to broadcast at much higher power than WLS Chicago or WABC New York, says Converse.

"We'll be signing on as big a coverage area as allowed under the current rules in Philly," says Converse. "But Ch. 7 [WABC] is restrained, relatively. The northeast corridor and all of zone 1 that extends out to Chicago is just TV station after TV station after TV station. They're just stacked in there. And over the course of time, since we first started thinking about DTV in the early Eighties, a lot has happened to the RF environment."