My 2/09/09 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.
Last week, Congress voted to delay by four months the required digital TV change, which was to happen on the Feb. 17. What this means is TV broadcasting stations are not yet required to switch to all digital signals that could have possibly left many viewers with older analog TV sets with over-the-air antennas in the dark.
But some full-power broadcasters around the country say they will go ahead and switch to digital on Feb. 17 (after notifying the Federal Communications Commission, as per the recent change), which includes local station KTMF-23.
The delay until June 12 for the required change has already confused consumers and caused economic problems for small stations. (If you’re on satellite or cable for TV, you’re mostly not affected by this change, but check with your provider.)
Nielsen Ratings estimates that around 6.5 million viewers use analog TV sets to receive over-the-air broadcasts, and without a new digital TV or TV converter box they would all have gotten a black screen after Feb. 17.
“The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the (digital TV) conversion,” White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in a statement published in The Washington Post. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.
Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said in a statement in the same article that, “The country is not prepared to undertake a nationwide transition in 12 days without unacceptably high consumer dislocation,” and, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we now have an opportunity to do it better.”
But the legislation allows stations to go ahead and switch to digital if they choose, as with KTMF. Hawaii went to digital TV last month, with mixed results. Some consumers were left with no reception at all, and some stations now plan to move transmitters later this year to try and accommodate TV viewers. Phone hot lines were busy with people wondering why they suddenly couldn’t get reception and needing help hooking up converter boxes.
The FCC has long been criticized for planning the change not around consumers, but for the chance to have more free broadcast spectrum for other users. Only last summer did they started airing public service announcements about the change to digital.
Some say that the delay until June will increase the consumer confusion and may actually result in a shortage of TV converter boxes, because manufacturers planned on the change this month and now might have to gear up to manufacture more on short notice.
The federal program in the Department of Commerce ( www.dtv2009.gov ) that gives $40 coupons to help with the cost of a TV converter box is out of money right now, but more funding is included in the large economic stimulus package before Congress. Right now, there are more than 3.7 million people on a waiting list for coupons.
Another little-known problem with the digital TV change is that some institutions – group homes, prisons and other organizations – aren’t eligible to apply for converter box coupons. There are potentiality thousands of TVs owned by these groups they have to look for funding or ask individuals to donate coupons.
The delay until June 12 doesn’t address the main problem for many viewers, which is whether they’ll receive a good reception or any reception at all. Digital signals don’t travel as far as analog. The FCC has published reception maps of some areas of Montana that show what areas will lose reception with the digital change, and the maps for Great Falls and Helena (none are available for Missoula) show large areas that will be out of range (www.fcc.gov/dtv/markets/ report2.html).
The fact remains that digital signals don’t gracefully degrade. Analog signals are still watchable on the fringes of reception. We’re all used to seeing static and “snow” on the screen while still being able to watch and listen. But digital circuits have thresholds of a minimum of power needed to be processed, and noise must be under a certain threshold, too. If the minimum digital signal power isn’t available, or if it is available and the electronic tuner detects too much noise in it (static in the analog world), then the circuitry says “no” and you get a blank screen.
The delay until June will cost broadcasters because they will have to continue analog broadcasts until that time. For full-power stations, money is a concern, but for Frank Tyro, director of KSKC Public TV at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, (a low-power station with a large number of analog viewers) it’s a matter of patching equipment together.
Tyro told me that after four years of preparation for the change, the delay is “appalling.” Over the last few years he has worked to get viewers changed over, giving educational programs and preparing his broadcasting station, and now his analog transmitters are “hanging by strings.” He’s down to scavenging parts to keep them going. Tyro is currently trying to find out from the FCC if he has to stay analog until June.
For TV viewers, Tyro stresses the need for outdoor antennas to be able to get digital reception. He’s tested amplified indoor rabbit ears, and they just don’t work that well. I didn’t have much luck with reception in the Missoula valley with standard rabbit ears and a converter box. All I could get were signals from KUFM, and sometimes they were pixilated.
In Missoula, a few changes are in store. Bob Hermes at KPAX said they will “continue after Feb. 17 to broadcast on both of our digital and analog signals to allow more time for viewers in the area to prepare for the change over.” But he said KPAX might change over earlier than June if all other stations in the area get ready.
At KUFM, William Marcus said they will “delay digital conversion until June 12. Both our analog and digital stations will remain on the air until then.” Rebecca Swan of KECI (including KCFW and KTVM) said they will “all be making the transition in June.” But Linda Gray at KTMF-23 says they will go digital on Feb. 17, and they are announcing that on air at this time. How the change goes for their viewers may be an indication of what’s to come. If you watch KTMF over the air, be aware that you will need a digital TV or a converter box after Feb. 17.
Between now and June 12, watch for more public service announcements about the digital TV change and more public demonstrations and educational meetings. If you go to a store to look at converter boxes and outdoor antennas, ask for someone with experience.
Check www.dtv2009.gov to apply for a free coupon worth $40 toward the purchase of a TV converter box at, and read more about the digital change there and at Montana PBS