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Stay tuned: The digital TV conversion

The switch has been delayed until June, but will the extra time help people keep their sets going?

POSTED: February 15, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

John Smathers uses a good antenna he keeps in his attic to receive local television broadcast signals. The location of his home, high on a hill, allows clear reception of the over-the-air channels. Depending on the type of antenna you have, you may or may not be able to receive over-the-air broadcast signals when stations switch to all-digital broadcasting.

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Brendann Jordan happily watches her favorite shows - "Grey's Anatomy," "American Idol" and "Lost"- on an old analog set, and she concedes she's not yet ready for the conversion to digital TV.

"I just kind of don't know what to do," said Jordan, a Gillsville resident who feels the transition is an unnecessary hassle. "I don't think it's fair."

Jordan said she is confused and wants to make sure she buys the correct equipment that will give her the best over-the-air digital signal possible.

She is researching which of three options would be most economical for her:

  • Keeping her current set and buying a converter box.
  • Buying a new digital-ready TV.
  • Subscribing to a cable or satellite service.

Those choices will be her only options when over-the-air stations stop broadcasting analog signals. Congress has pushed the digital TV transition to June 12, but residents like Jordan remain confused.

The decision to push the transition from Tuesday's original date was made to give more time to the reported 6 million-plus homes nationwide that were unprepared to receive digital signals. Federal funding to subsidize the $40 coupons residents could get to help pay for a digital converter box also had run out, although additional money is included in the new stimulus package debated last week by Congress.

The transition has been particularly difficult for elderly residents, said Terry Shuler of Legacy Link, a Gainesville organization that assists the elderly through a variety of programs.

"There's a lot of confusion in the fact that they don't understand they need a box for every television," Shuler said. "They don't understand that they're going to have to use two remote controls.

"Other things that have been issues are due to the topography, the lay of the land. Some of the antennas, the signals aren't real good. So even with the box installed they're not able to pick up some of the stations they have in the past."

Legacy Link has a few of the coupons available, and is working to help others who still need a converter box get one.

To add to the confusion, some stations may not wait until June to make the switch. The Federal Communication Commission said Tuesday that 491 of the nation's 1,796 full-power stations - almost 30 percent - will stick to the original Feb. 17 date to end their analog broadcasts, according to the Associated Press.

TV viewers in Northeast Georgia who aren't yet ready for the change will lose WNEG in Toccoa and Georgia Public Television on Tuesday. Both stations have chosen to end analog broadcasts on the original date.

But the major network stations in Atlanta - WSB, WXIA, WAGA and WGCL - will make the transition in June.

But even with the extra time, those prepared with a converter box, which allows an analog TV set to receive digital programming, found themselves left with many questions.

North Hall resident Kathy Clemmons said she is frustrated about the lack of information about what to do once a converter box is installed. After hooking one up, she doesn't understand why her TV can't pick up all the channels it used to with just an antenna.

"There are more facets to it than go get a box and plug it in," Clemmons said. "I thought 'well, maybe this isn't me.' We thought we had hooked it up correctly but then you begin to wonder, and there's nobody to call unless you spend a lot of money."

Clemmons said the advertising about the digital transition focused too much on the preliminary steps.

"There's all kind of answers to the questions about when the date is and the basic instructions. But that's it, there's nothing about when you have a problem."

John Smathers of Connections Theater, a Flowery Branch-based home entertainment company, said many do not know that a new antenna could be necessary to pick up digital broadcasts, which operate in a different spectrum.

Smathers said most antennas are designed to receive VHF, or very high frequency, signals.

All of the digital signals in Atlanta, with the exception of WXIA, are broadcast as UHF, or ultra high frequency signals.

That means most antennas need to be replaced with a UHF antenna and be repositioned to properly receive the new digital signal because UHF signals do not travel as far as VHF signals.

Smathers said he thinks the government should have used some of the money spent on advertising the digital converter boxes to let people know they may need a new antenna, too.

"They've done a really bad job of talking about antennas," Smathers said.

And with antennas, it's not a simple one size fits all.

Many factors come in to play when it comes to selecting the right antenna, such as positioning on the roof, the type of signal being broadcast and the type of terrain a home is on.

"It's pretty confusing," Smathers said.

Jere Pigue, president of the Georgia Association of Broadcasters, said each situation is unique, so some homes may need different types of antennas while many homes will not need a new antenna at all.

"There definitely is difference in the types of antennas you can purchase. You can do one that's UHF, you can do one that's VHF or you can do one that's a combo. There will be some homes who are taking their signal as free over the air broadcast through their antennas that may in fact have to change their antenna," Pigue said.

Old antennas may also just be weather worn, Pigue said, which could affect how well they receive the digital broadcast.

On top of worrying about an antenna, Smathers pointed out that people will also have to worry about what channels are still broadcasting analog signals.

Meanwhile, Legacy Link is working to help older residents get coupons and converter boxes. Shuler said the demand is still high.

Shuler said anyone who has extra coupons or converter boxes can donate them to Legacy Link, who, in turn, will get them to people who need them.

"There are a lot of challenges," Shuler said. "The hardest part is the education."




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