Despite DTV Delay, Viewers May Still Lose Picture

Bob Granville reaches to change the channel on his analog television set in his home in Miami. i i

Bob Granville reaches to change the channel on his analog television set in his home in Miami. Granville says he is glad there will be a delay in the move to a digital-only signal because he cannot drive to buy himself a converter. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Bob Granville reaches to change the channel on his analog television set in his home in Miami.

Bob Granville reaches to change the channel on his analog television set in his home in Miami. Granville says he is glad there will be a delay in the move to a digital-only signal because he cannot drive to buy himself a converter.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
An analog television sits in a pile of TVs and monitors waiting to be dismantled at e-Recycling. i i

An analog television sits in a pile of TVs and monitors waiting to be dismantled at e-Recycling in Hayward, Calif. Though analog televisions can show a DTV signal with a converter box, some viewers have opted to simply buy new TVs altogether. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
An analog television sits in a pile of TVs and monitors waiting to be dismantled at e-Recycling.

An analog television sits in a pile of TVs and monitors waiting to be dismantled at e-Recycling in Hayward, Calif. Though analog televisions can show a DTV signal with a converter box, some viewers have opted to simply buy new TVs altogether.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you're one of millions of Americans who have yet to prepare for the transition to digital TV, you've got an extra four months to get ready. The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to delay the switch until June.

The delay should give lawmakers time to inject more money into a government program that helps viewers buy digital converter boxes for their older, analog TVs. But it may not prevent millions of over-the-air viewers from losing reception anyway.

Millions of Americans have signed up for government-sponsored coupons to help pay for their converter boxes. Dooley Rush bought hers at a Wal-Mart near her house in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va. Rush took the box home and plugged it into the antenna on top of her TV.

"The picture came up crystal clear," she says. "It was thrilling. Until about five to seven minutes later, when the picture started to pixelate. Or we'd get a bar in the middle of the screen that said 'No signal.' "

Rush says she gets uninterrupted reception only about half of the time. To make her reception any better, Rush thinks she would have to put an expensive rooftop antenna on her house.

"That's not what they advertised," Rush protests. "That's not what the message has been — you slap the box in, and life will be good."

Not That Easy

Independent analyst Barry Goodstadt says that according to his research, there are about 15 million households in the U.S. that only get their TV signals over the airwaves. And he thinks many of them are going to lose channels.

"Seventy-two percent have indoor antennas," says Goodstadt, "and those folks will have serious problems getting reception."

The reason, he says, is that digital TV signals behave differently than do analog signals. Digital signals are more susceptible to interference from trees, buildings, low-flying aircraft and even the wind. When digital signals get weak, the picture doesn't just get fuzzy — it drops out altogether. But broadcasters say most viewers should be able to watch digital TV without buying new antennas.

David Donovan is president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, an industry trade group that helped come up with the standards for the digital transition.

"When we did our testing — and we did an awful lot of testing before this system was adopted — it performed better than analog," insists Donovan.

Nevertheless, he says, when it comes to the brave new world of digital TV, you may need to employ a very old-school fix to improve your reception.

"Move your antenna just a bit." Donovan advises. "When anyone is trying to receive a signal over the air, you have issues. You have it with your cell phones. Once you get the spot, you're fine."

Donovan thinks a fairly small number of viewers are going to lose reception. But Michael Copps, the new acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is worried the number will be more substantial. Copps recently addressed the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee.

"Some consumers, through no fault of their own, are going to lose one or more channels as a result of the transition," Copps told the committee. "That we did not understand this better long ago through better analysis, tests and trial runs is, to me, mind-boggling."

The FCC did some in-house testing, and its engineers came away with fairly encouraging results. The problem, says Goodstadt, is that their tests assumed that most people have outside antennas.

"The FCC's analysis was flawed," Goodstadt says. "The standard is based upon an assumption that all consumers who want to receive analog TV have a rooftop directional antenna at 10 meters or 33 feet above the ground. And that's not the case for most people."

Congress Steps In

Some lawmakers say they're already getting complaints from angry constituents. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says people shouldn't have to pay for something they've always gotten free.

"Ordinary people did not request this transition," Sanders points out. "To deny people something they've had for decades, to say, 'Sorry, you're gonna lose that.' That would be incomprehensible."

Sanders drafted a bill that would require cable and satellite TV providers to offer a bare-bones package of local channels for $10 per month. But some disappointed viewers seem ready to give up on their TV sets altogether. Jessica Collins of Albuquerque, N.M., says she did everything she was supposed to but still gets lousy reception through her new converter box.

"I've sort of resorted to just not turning on the TV," Collins says. "Now that I went to the trouble of getting the converter box and everything else. It sort of just sits there in the corner of my living room. And I use it to watch movies. But I don't want to ever turn it on."

Like a lot of younger viewers, Collins says she is more likely to watch TV shows on her laptop. The number of households that rely on over-the-air signals is already falling. And the transition to digital TV — whenever it comes — could drive even more viewers to one of the alternatives.

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