WTAP - Blogs - Roger Sheppard Editorial

End of Analog Less Than 30 Days Away

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Affected People Need to Act Quickly!

The date February 17, 2009 has been etched in the minds of broadcasters for several years now. In the past year or so, the date has registered on the awareness of most Americans. And now that it is less than 30 days away, there is some confusion and last-minute scrambling going on.

Roughly at midnight on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009, WTAP (like many other TV stations around the U.S.) will cease normal programming on its analog channel. In the case of WTAP, that channel 15 has been our "home" for more than 55 years. Most of the other TV channels that people have come to know in the past half century, are also changing or being augmented by strange appendages such as "point two" or "point three," as in the case of WTAP's digital channels 15.1, 15.2, and 15.3.

(If you receive WTAP and other area broadcasters via cable, you do not have to worry about this. Your cable company is taking care of everything.)

Most people know that this is happening so that the federal government (which manages the public airwaves) can make the old TV frequencies available to first responders such as fire and ambulance crews. Those frequencies will also allow new wireless technologies to emerge and grow.

And switching from the old analog way of sending out TV signals to the new digital format, allows TV stations to send out High Definition television signals (HDTV) free over-the-air and even offer more television stations than in the past.

WTAP's long-time NBC analog UHF channel 15 has been "simul-cast" digitally since November 2002 on digital channel 15.1. That means, we've been sending out the same programming on both channels to help people make the transition. Many people are already receiving 15.1 free over-the-air on their digital TV sets, or (if they have gotten a set top digital-to-analog box) on their older TV sets. They're also already enjoying FOX Parkersburg (which is channel 15.2) and our MyNetwork station which we call "My5," on digital channel 15.3, free, over-the-air.

You'll note that in the previous paragraph, I mentioned that WTAP has been simul-casting its NBC station in both analog and digital since November 2002. That's more than SIX years ago! WTAP has been getting ready for the end of analog for more than six years.

Now that the big day is less than 30 days ago, it's not surprising that some problems have emerged.

First, it's the coupon program. Rather than forcing people to buy new digital TV sets over the past few years, the government worked with electronics manufacturers to develop what are called "digital-to-analog set-top boxes." These boxes are designed to capture the new digital signals, free over-the-air, and turn them into a picture that people's older (analog) TV sets could see. The boxes cost between $40-$100 or more. But even that amount is a burden to people. So the govermnment set up a program whereby folks could get up to two "coupons," each worth $40, toward the purchase of up to two set-top boxes. The coupons each have an expiration date of 90-days from the date they were sent out, to help make sure people used them EARLY and did not wait until the last week or so to use them. (NOTE: The price of digital sets has come down dramatically and the picture quality is incredible!)

In the past couple of weeks, the program that distributes those coupons has virtually run out of money. Under normal circumstances, additional money could not be made available to the program until a new federal budget gets passed. In reality, the program hasn't actually run out of money. What has happened is this. When a person signs up for and receives a coupon, the federal program holds the money in escrow until the coupon is used. MIllions of people have gotten coupons and not used them. Some people may not EVER use them for one reason or another. When the expiration date passes for a coupon, and that coupon has not been used, the money for that coupon becomes available for other coupon users. Right now, there are millions of people holding coupons that have not yet been used and have not yet expired. So, the government has to hold off on sending out any more coupons until until those are used or until their expiration dates pass. Was there anough money set aside for this program? Probably not. Now, folks in Washington are scrambling to see if there's a way to put more money into the program -- NOW -- to allow coupons to be sent out and redeemed between now and Feb. 17.

While all of this has been going on, and partly in response to this mess, certain legislators (including Sen. Jay Rockefeller from West Virginia) have proposed delaying the Feb 17 deadline for shutting off analog transmitters. President-elect Obama's team has indicated it would like to see a delay until June or later. That legislation is still working its way through the Capitol as this is written (on Sat., Jan. 17). I can understand why, from a political standpoint, people like the President-elect and Sen. Rockefeller would like to delay this.

No one, least of all TV stations, wants to see ANYONE lose access to their local TV station. If people who rely on free, over-the-air TV to receive their local stations have not gotten ready for the digital transition, those people could find themselves without access to those station come the morning of Feb. 18. If a person applied for one of the government coupons in the past couple of weeks, he or she might not get that coupon in time to beat the Feb. 17 deadline. They can still go out and buy one of the set-top boxes. They just won't have a government coupon which would help them save money on that purchase.

The legislation, in its current form, would delay the date by which broadcasters are REQUIRED to end their analog signals. Some, like those in Hawaii and in Wilimington, NC, have already shut off their analog transmitters. The old law required broadcasters to end their regular programming by Feb. 17. Broadcasters could shut off transmitters before Feb. 17 if they needed or wanted to. But it HAD to be done by Feb. 17.

Why not just delay the whole thing?

That's a fair question. But there are at least two reasons why many stations (like WTAP) will probably go forward with the digital transition on Feb. 17 even if they are given the option of delaying that date.

Reason #1: Many stations, like WTAP, have older analog transmitters, that they have been struggling to maintain until they could be turned off on Feb. 17. Manufacturers have stopped making key components of those units (like the main transmitter tubes). When those parts die, the transmitters will shut down and will not be able to come back on the air. If WTAP were to delay shutting off its analog transmitter until after Feb. 17, it's entirely possible that the transmitter could fail, unexpectedly, in the days or weeks to follow. Is it better to shut off the transmitter in an orderly fashion, on a date that everyone has been targeting for several years ... or ... to have that transmitter fail unexpectedly right in the middle of a major snowstorm or other emergency, with people still relying on it?

Reason #2: Sen. Rockefeller has said that he wants to make sure that "no one" gets caught without TV service due to this transition. With all due respect to the Senator, that's impossible. Broadcasters have been harping on the digital transition for ages now. I get phone calls and e-mails from people (who will not be affected by the transition) asking us when we are ever going to "shut up" about it. There is no way that 100% of the people who will be affected by all of this, will be ready when the switch is thrown, whether that's on Feb. 17, June 12 or the year 2010. And since we have all been focusing on Feb. 17, if that date is delayed, it's entirely possible that fewer people would be ready when the "end date" arrives, because they may operate under the illusion that it will be delayed again...and again...and again. In actuality, this whole digital transition was supposed to happen a couple of years ago. But it got delayed until Feb. 17, 2009 due to the needs of equipment manufacturers and some broadcasters who needed more time to get things set.

Will there be people who may awake up on the morning of Feb. 18, 2009, and find themselves without a local channel on their TVs due to the digital transition? Absolutely. In some cases that will be because they failed to act upon the countless hundreds of warnings that have been aired on our station and virtually every other cable and broadcast channel over the past year or so. In some cases, it will be because those folks did everything they should have done to get ready, but the antenna they have at their house is not able to receive certain channels for one or more technical reasons. Other people may live in an area where, despite their best efforts, their properly installed anntennas and wiring and their new digital TV sets cannot pick up one or more channels. Hills and valleys play a big role in determining who can pick up which signals, and that is even moreso the case with finicky digital signals.

All of this would be less of a problem in this area if WTAP were carried on satellite, since some households get their TV signals partially or exclusively via satellite. WTAP would LOVE to be on satellite. Virtually every other TV station that Gray Television owns across the U.S. (and there are 36 of them), is carried on satellite. WTAP is the smallest Gray station, and like many of the nation's smallest communities, neither of the major satellite companies have done what was necessary to put those smaller station on satellite. (You may be interested to know that the TV stations in Wheeling and Beckley are also NOT on satellite.)

Jonathan Adelstein, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, was in Charleston on Friday, Jan. 16. He is one of the commissioners who fought to FORCE the satellite companies to put EVERY TV station in America on satellite. He was out-voted on the FCC. And we are all reaping the results.

Mr. Adelstein also told me what he is telling people everywhere. Regardless of what the situation is with the federal coupon program, people should apply NOW for coupons if they need them and are entitled to them. Then, at least those folks will be on the list when the coupons are made available again. But he also admitted that even if the coupons started flowing again today, not everyone would get their coupons before Feb. 17. If you can afford to do so, you should go out and buy your digital-to-analog boxes NOW rather than waiting. There could be a last-minute shortage, and if you wait for a coupon, you may not receive one until after Feb. 17.

For more information about the coupon program you can call 1-888-DTV-2009 or go to the website www.DTV2009.gov. You can also call the DTV information line at WTAP-TV (304-485-4588, x253). There's a lengthy message there. You can leave a message on that line after the recording has finished. And all of this information is also available at www.wtap.com. 

Sen. Rockefeller has said that he wants to make sure that "no one" gets caught without TV service due to this transition. With all due respect to the Senator, that's impossible. Broadcasters have been harping on the digital transition for ages now. I get phone calls and e-mails from people (who will not be affected by the transition) asking us when we are ever going to "shut up" about it. There is no way that 100% of the people who will be affected by all of this, will be ready when the switch is thrown, whether that's on Feb. 17, June 12 or the year 2010. And since we have all been focusing on Feb. 17, if that date is delayed, it's entirely possible that fewer people would be ready when the "end date" arrives, because they may operate under the illusion that it will be delayed again...and again...and again. In actuality, this whole digital transition was supposed to happen a couple of years ago. But it got delayed until Feb. 17, 2009 due to the needs of equipment manufacturers and some broadcasters who needed more time to get things set.

 

Sen. Rockefeller has said that he wants to make sure that "no one" gets caught without TV service due to this transition. With all due respect to the Senator, that's impossible. Broadcasters have been harping on the digital transition for ages now. I get phone calls and e-mails from people (who will not be affected by the transition) asking us when we are ever going to "shut up" about it. There is no way that 100% of the people who will be affected by all of this, will be ready when the switch is thrown, whether that's on Feb. 17, June 12 or the year 2010. And since we have all been focusing on Feb. 17, if that date is delayed, it's entirely possible that fewer people would be ready when the "end date" arrives, because they may operate under the illusion that it will be delayed again...and again...and again. In actuality, this whole digital transition was supposed to happen a couple of years ago. But it got delayed until Feb. 17, 2009 due to the needs of equipment manufacturers and some broadcasters who needed more time to get things set.
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