My 2/22/09 Missoulian column
KMMF Update: Max Media Montana (KTMF) will begin broadcasting some Fox programming mid-July on digital channel 23.2, as KMMF has gone out of business and is off the air as the station’s parent company went bankrupt was unable to make the transition to digital.
The first steps of the digital TV transition began early last Wednesday morning and, for the most part, it seems like it went fairly well.
More than 28,000 people called 1-888-CALL-FCC on Tuesday for help getting their TV sets working, according to the Associated Press. Much less than the projected 100,000 callers a day they were prepared for.
And more that a third of full-power TV stations in the U.S. – 641 in all – changed to digital on Feb. 17, according to The Washington Post, even though more than 5 million U.S. households, or 4.4 percent of homes, still cannot receive digital broadcasts.
So did all the public service announcements the Federal Communications Commission required TV stations to air pay off? Or did we not get full effect of transition problems because the transition has been stretched out until June?
It’s impossible to say, but I think the work local stations did to point out the upcoming change to viewers paid off. But June 12 is the new analog cut-off date, so there is still work to be done.
In Montana, several stations in Missoula, Great Falls and Butte stopped analog broadcasts, while some stations in Billings wanted to cut analog but were prevented by the FCC because of the potential negative impact to the market. In Missoula, while other stations stayed analog or continued to broadcast analog alongside digital, KTMF/ABC stopped analog broadcasts.
I talked with Linda Gray, president of Max Media Montana, the company behind KTMF, and she explained the work up to the transition and how the company reacted to consumer phone calls and to technical problems. One of their early decisions was what to do about their channel numbers.
Gray said that “digital allocations were made in the late 1990s, so we’ve been working on this for a long time. When the FCC made the channel assignments, they gave us the opportunity to go back to the original channel assignment after the digital switch. We looked at our signal propagation on paper and after some tests, we decided we’d stay with our old channel 23 instead of going with channel 36.”
The channel switch went like this: “When we shut off channel 23 analog, we also shut off our low-power digital channel 36 because we had a new digital transmitter on 23 ready to go on Tuesday at midnight. That new signal appears as digital channel 23.1 on a TV converter box or a digital TV. So our analog channel 23 and digital low power channel 36 are now gone, and our channel 23 digital is now full power.”
Digital was a long process, she told me. The FCC began looking at digital TV in the late 1980s after Japan demonstrated their own HDTV standard way back in 1983. Then, the FCC announced that May 1, 2002, was to be the deadline for all full-power stations to have digital transmitters running, according to Wired.com (snurl.com/cbn2r).
“But it wasn’t until the hard cut-off date this year was announced that things really started moving nationally,” Gray said.
So then why Feb. 17? “I think it was just pulled out of a hat; I’m not sure what the logic was,” she said. “Obviously, the FCC didn’t want it to affect the Superbowl, but the date is in the middle of a normal sweeps ratings period, which was postponed.”
And the reason for KTMF’s decision to cut off analog? “It wasn’t just financial. Our analog transmitters are old and we had everything in place to change, and the question for us was if we should roll the dice and try to keep analog going for four more months or stick with the original plan,” Gray said.
And with the news that so many communities around the country had smooth transitions, Gray feels that they made a good decision. (MaxMedia Montana also switched off analog in Butte and Great Falls.) I asked if they just flipped a switch at midnight on Tuesday, and Gray laughed. (I didn’t think it was that simple, but I had to ask anyway.)
She said, “There was a setting that the engineers had to reconfigure and we were off the air for around four hours on Wednesday morning. Our engineer Roger Hatcher worked a total of over 29 hours straight; our engineering staff really has to be commended for a great job.
“We got a lot of calls during that time because people didn’t know if it was their converter box or their TV or what, but we were able to help people with directions to hook up boxes and rescan with TVs. We made sure we had instruction booklets for all the available converter boxes on hand, and had staff ready to go on the phone bank.”
And what about the calls? “On Monday, we got about a dozen calls; and maybe 100 calls on Tuesday, but those were mostly during the time we were off the air. This weekend there are sports events and Academy Awards, and we’ll get more calls then.”
So the switch is done for KTMF. What about other Missoula stations?KUFM/Montana PBS, KECI/NBC and KPAX/CBS are still broadcasting in analog alongside digital. KSKC/PBS will remain analog until later in the spring, as it is low power and can change when needed.
But KMMF, the Fox affiliate, is a different story. According to publicly available FCC filings, the station has been given an extension until August to complete the necessary work to go to digital, but it appears that between June 12 – the final analog cutoff – and the time they are ready to go to digital they will be off the air.
The reason for the extension is that the holding company of KMMF is in bankruptcy, and had the June delay for analog not come to pass, KMMF would be off the air right now because they don’t have a companion digital channel. Anyone can search document filings for any station at the FCC Electronic Filing and Public Access system.
If you’re having trouble getting good reception with with your digital TV or with an analog TV and a converter box, be sure you have a good antenna. Rabbit ears can be problematic even in town. Out of town, an outside antenna is essential. An outdoor antenna in your attic will work better than than none at all. The idea is to get your antenna off the ground as far as you can to get out of “ground clutter.”
With either a digital TV or a TV converter box, be sure to rescan for channels, especially if you get a new antenna. Stations numbers to call for help with TV converter boxes and other digital TV help are: KTMF: 542-8900, KECI: 721-2063, KPAX: 542-4400, KUFM: 1-800-426-8243 and KSKC (in Pablo) 406-275-4878.
And check www.dtv2009.gov for an announcement of new funding for the TV Converter coupon program. It’s supposed to be in the pipeline in the next few weeks.