Digital TV conversion not going well for someby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Nielsen Media Research estimates there are more than 22,000 households in the Twin Cities metro area that haven't made the switch to digital TV.
Those folks have until the end of this month to apply for a pair of $40 coupons to help them buy converter boxes for their old TVs, but some people who did prepare for the digital conversion have had reception problems since TV stations stopped analog broadcasts last month.
Dana Murdoch isn't a big TV watcher, but in preparation for the digital conversion she and her husband splurged on a new, digital-ready flat screen for their St. Paul home.
"We thought we were on top of everything buying this new TV," Murdoch said.
They bought a new indoor antenna to go with it, but when stations switched off their analog signals on June 13, Murdoch found her reception spotty.
"I had problems with [channels] 9 and 45; those are the worst two," she said." "But then even 5 and 4 and 11 sometimes don't come in."
With digital broadcasts, stations either come in perfectly, on not at all. There is no static, but instead the sound can cut out abruptly and the picture will freeze or dissolve into a blocky, pixilated mosaic.
Murdoch bought a new, more expensive indoor antenna, which seems to help a bit. Flipping through the channels, and at first they all come in, with sharp digital clarity. But leaving it on channel 45 for a minute the picture cuts out.
Murdoch is frustrated, and she's not alone. The Federal Communications Commission receives about 10,000 calls a day to its help line, though that is a fraction of last month's call volume. Close to 100,000 called 1-888-CALL-FCC the Monday after the conversion.
Local stations have also fielded a slow but steady trickle of calls since then. Twin Cities Public Television gets about ten a day, mostly reception problems.
"They'll say 'I can't get your channel,' or 'I can't get it very well,'" explained Stephen Usery, vice president of communications. "We'll walk them through a few steps with their antenna or their converter box and it works just fine."
Sometimes, it is a matter of adjusting your antenna, placing it near a window, or upgrading to a fancier one. Usrey said, in the majority of cases, TPT operators are able to talk people through their problems over the phone.
There are other organizations that will send someone out to your house to help troubleshoot for free.
Retired electrical engineering professor Stephen Margolis of Mendota Heights, has a small television rigged up in the trunk of his Toyota Prius. Wires run from the TV to the car's cigarette lighter and to a digital converter box, which in turn is attached to a pair of rabbit ears perched on the roof of the car. Margolis cobbled this set-up together to test digital TV reception around the metro area.
Margolis, 77, has been helping people fix reception problems as a volunteer for the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. The reception outside his condo is perfect, but he has found problem spots elsewhere in the metro.
The hill of St. Paul's Highland Park casts a shadow that Margolis said interferes with reception along part of West 7th Street. Nearby apartment building have 30-foot high rooftop antennas, which reach for a clear signal.
The Lao Assistance Center also received calls from a woman at a house just south of St. Catherine University. Sure enough, Margolis found the school's hill and buildings made channels 2-3 and 2-4 difficult to receive there.
Those TPT stations are on a weaker transmitter than 2-1 and 2-2. TPT plans to upgrade its second transmitter this fall.
In the meantime, Margolis told the woman who had called the Assistance Center she would need to run wires and put her antenna on the second floor or even the roof to improve reception. But she had no interest in that.
"It was simpler for her just to get cable," Margolis said.
The Minnesota Broadcasters Association says it does not have enough data yet to know how many people have switched to cable instead of upgrading to digital TV. But with more stations available for free over the airwaves, local broadcasters hope some Minnesotans with cable will switch back.
- Morning Edition, 07/22/2009, 6:50 a.m.