Wave of brief analog shutdowns are clear warnings to over-air viewers

How could we have doubted that TV, which has beaten so many things into Americans’ heads on behalf of advertisers, would fail to make it clear where to tune in broadcasts when they go all-digital Feb. 18?

As if they march under the banner, “Leave no grandma behind,” commercial and public stations, city by city, have begun a series of “soft shutdowns” of analog transmitters that’s likely to grow in frequency and duration until all viewers are converted and accounted for.

FCC officials have begun talking about a series of coordinated national analog shutdowns. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and others have said the first could be scheduled Dec. 17.

Even with intensified publicity, a small percentage of viewers — that is, millions of them — may not be properly wired by the FCC’s Feb. 17 final shutoff, some broadcasters are predicting.

“I think it will be hell for a week or two,” says Frank Graybill, chief engineer at New York’s WNET. He expects 50,000 households or more to lose over-the-air reception in his area. “Can 95 percent of them be made to work within a week?” he asks. “Yes.”

He expects to do more shutdowns in New York. “We may be doing them daily in February,” Graybill says.

The brief shutdowns are designed primarily to alert viewers whose reception depends on a transmitter that will cease working after Feb. 17. But stations and cable operators also learn about unrecognized glitches. Brief shutoffs this summer in Orlando, Fla., turned up a few small cable systems that hadn’t installed DTV receivers in their headends, says Mike Simmons, chief of engineering at WMFE. It’s something they’re all glad to know before February.

Viewer readiness varies enormously from place to place. In New York, about 70 percent of the callers after a citywide soft shutdown Dec. 2 wanted to know about discount coupons for DTV converter boxes, Graybill estimates.

In Oregon, calls about coupons are rare these days, says Becky Chinn, membership chief at Oregon Public Broadcasting, which has relied on outreach without soft shutdowns. “The calls are getting more technical and individualized.”

“There’s no real precedent for this”—moving toward a date when a widely used device will stop working for 15 or 20 percent of the population—says Tom Haydon, an in-house DTV answer man at OPB. In the process, broadcasters and equipment manufacturers have been slow to recognize and fix many oncoming problems, he says.

Analog pass-through circuits: DTV converter box manufacturers didn’t foresee that, with many rural translator stations continuing analog broadcasting after Feb. 17, viewers in those areas would need a pass-through circuit to let them pick up both analog and DTV signals, Haydon says. Most boxes now have the circuits, he says.

Repeated rescanning: Public education hasn’t emphasized that converter-box owners will need to run the boxes’ channel-scanning function not only when they set up the box or its antenna but also on Feb. 18, when many stations will move to their permanent channels, Haydon says.

More things to hook up: “VCRs are becoming a giant issue,” adds Chinn. Installing the converter box and antenna is just the start, according to Ron Pisaneschi, director of broadcasting at Idaho PTV. When the network held focus groups, viewers were equally concerned about making sure their VCRs and TiVo boxes were hooked up properly, he says.

“Maybe the biggest thing we didn’t expect was how much bad information is going to be out there,” says Haydon. Media have ignored the importance of antennas or told viewers they need “digital antennas,” as if such things exist, when they really need an outdoor antenna, or a UHF antenna, or, in other cases, their old rabbit ears will do fine.

Norm Abram marathon

Idaho PTV’s statewide turnoffs Sept. 5 and Sept. 29 inspired replication by pubcasters around the country. Metr

Viewers who learn theyre not ready for DTV during Bostons soft shutdown Dec. 8 will be referred to WGBHs analog channel, which will replay, all day long, Get Ready for Digital TV starring This Old House do-it-yourselfers Kevin OConnor (holding DTV converter box) and Norm Abram. (Photo: © WGBH/Anthony Tieuli.)

Viewers who learn they're not ready for DTV during Boston's "soft shutdown" Dec. 8 will be referred to WGBH's analog channel, which will replay, all day long, Get Ready for Digital TV starring This Old House do-it-yourselfers Kevin O'Connor (holding DTV converter box) and Norm Abram. (Photo: © WGBH/Anthony Tieuli.)

o-wide turnoffs are coming thick and fast. New York had shutdowns Oct. 28 and Dec. 2, Chicago on Nov. 12, Los Angeles and Washington on Dec. 2, and New Orleans on Dec. 3. Pennsylvania broadcasters went out nearly statewide Nov. 17.

For its part of the Los Angeles turnoff, KCET staged a bilingual promo with station President Al Jerome delivering the script in English and news anchor Valerie Zavala in Spanish, says Bohdan Zachary, v.p. of broadcasting and syndication. The station plans another shutdown Dec. 17, along with the rumored national event.

And there are more to come. Broadcasters in Florida’s Palm Beach area plan weekly analog shutdowns twice every Monday starting today.

The next day, Dec. 9, public TV will play an especially prominent role in Boston’s city-wide soft shutdown. Sixteen stations plan three 2-minute turnoffs, 5:15 a.m., 6:15 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. Viewers whose hookups flunk the test will be sent to Channel 2—WGBH’s analog channel, which will continuously repeat the PBS-produced 30-minute Get Ready for Digital TV starring the hosts of This Old House. WGBH volunteered the airtime in a meeting with other Boston broadcasters and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). WGBH’s DTV signal will carry its regular schedule.

In Buffalo, N.Y., public station WNED will host the phone bank that handles questions from callers whose screens go dark Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.

To share last-minute tips and the latest intelligence from a new TRAC Media Services study of the situation, Public Television Programmers Association plans a phone teleconference for its members Jan. 6, says Zachary, PTPA president.

This version has been revised slightly since print publication and the photo has been added.

Web page posted Dec. 8, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

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