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TVs Left behind

Digital transition looms for some 'hoods

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When NASCAR driver David Gilliland jumped out of his No. 38 Ford Focus on Nov. 9 after it crashed and burned, he was acting as a one-man billboard for digital television. NASCAR is the biggest spectator sport in the country, and the government spent $350,000 to sponsor Gilliland for three races, hoping to get Americans to click on the Federal Communications Commission's DTV.gov Web site.

Idaho Public Television engineer Rich Van Genderen demonstrates DTV setup for seniors at Hillcrest Library. - GAVIN DAHL
  • Gavin Dahl
  • Idaho Public Television engineer Rich Van Genderen demonstrates DTV setup for seniors at Hillcrest Library.

He wrecked in two of the three contests.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, appointed by President George W. Bush, spun it this way: "Except for the cars that win the races, the cars that are in wrecks get a lot of attention."

Many see this taxpayer-funded crash-and-burn campaign as symbolic of the way the FCC has rolled out the digital transition. Martin's legacy may include as many as 2 million American homes left behind on Feb. 17, 2009, when analog TVs will no longer receive over-the-air programming.

In Idaho, broadcasters have been blasting viewers with DTV ads, infomercials and promotions for months, and Idaho Public Television is working to assist viewers statewide with the switchover. More than 400,000 people in Idaho depend on over-the-air signals. When IdahoPTV aired its DTV special in November, viewers made 2,600 phone calls seeking advice.

Still, as evidenced by the Dec. 9 Senior Share at Hillcrest Public Library, hosted by IdahoPTV production manager Jeff Tucker and engineer Rich Van Genderen, not everyone is ready. Attendees shared concerns about older televisions without fancy buttons, reception problems at apartment complexes and missing the black and white movies and TV classics on Channel 39 because of a converter box without analog pass-through.

And the problem is even more stark for other populations.

Because of the way digital signals travel, Idaho City residents may initially receive no over-the-air TV at all. Residents in parts of Harris Ranch in East Boise won't either, nor will people east of Emmett. In all, IdahoPTV likely needs six new digital translators to maintain current coverage. Public TV reaches 97 percent of the Idaho population over-the-air now.

Peter Morrill, who has been general manager of IdahoPTV for a decade, said broadcasters need opportunities from the FCC to apply for digital translator channels to fill in the gaps. IdahoPTV already has an annual budget of nearly $5 million and buying more repeaters could mean starting yet another privately-funded capital campaign.

"We first have to get the frequencies, and then we start fundraising," Morrill said with a gracious smile.

With the DTV transition now imminent, some critics are still questioning the decade-long process. In addition to the high costs for broadcasters and consumers and the waste involved in dumping a generation of sets, Megan Tady, of Free Press, said the DTV transition has not been regulated in the public interest.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that the DTV transition is actually a massive spectrum giveaway," she said. "Only licensed broadcasters are being given the new channels, meaning local communities, churches and non-profit groups are being left out. Local, independent and minority voices will still be stifled."

Five Hispanic organizations have called on President-elect Barack Obama to enhance minority access to digital opportunities such as DTV sub-channel licensing. Loris Taylor of Native Public Media said that Native Americans are looking forward to being included in new spectrum-based opportunities as well. Speaking for the 562 Native nations, she insisted, "They want their own broadcast facilities so their voices could be heard."

But there are long-term benefits to the digital conversion that are already apparent. The added programming available now on IdahoPTV is one. Public broadcasting has expanded throughout the state as IdahoPTV split its data stream into four sub-channels, scheduling distinct programs airing in the valley on 4.1 (digital), 4.2 (high-def), 4.3 (educational) and 4.4 (news and public affairs).

Other Boise broadcasters have expanded their lineups using sub-channels but not necessarily in the public interest.

"The broadcasters who are getting even more channels aren't creating new, innovative content, but instead are planning to recycle re-runs and reality shows. We're getting more TV all right, but just more of the same," Tady said.

Time remains to increase public awareness of the Feb. 17 transition. University students in a broadcasting and the public interest course in Martin's home state of North Carolina sent a letter Dec. 4 to him and the president of the National Association of Broadcasters asking for a 30-second DTV spot during the Super Bowl.

They have not gotten a response. Martin is expected to leave office before the DTV transition is complete.

Gavin Dahl is programming coordinator and music director at Boise Community Radio.


DTV FAQ

Cable or satellite subscribers do not need anything to continue receiving TV. If your TV does not have a digital tuner, you need to get a converter box, which costs about $50. The Department of Commerce is giving away two $40 coupons per household, but the program may run out of money before Feb 17.

The converter box coupon number, 888-DTV-2009, is often busy and it can take up to three weeks to get the coupons into the mail and three additional weeks to arrive in your mailbox. The $40 coupons expire after three months and March 31, 2009, is the last day to apply for one.

Some of these details have been well publicized, but the biggest failure of the government and broadcasters on DTV has been not stressing the importance of antennas. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said in a statement, "The last thing we need in February is for Americans to be on treacherous, icy roofs in inclement weather, trying to install a new antenna."

DTV requires VHF and UHF, but for decades most Treasure Valley residents have used VHF-only antennas. If you don't have cable or satellite service, you need an antenna, even if you live in one of the 10 percent of American households that spent more than $1,000 on a high-def big screen.

Some households will need a new rooftop antenna after hooking up their new converter boxes because of differences in the digital signal coverage. Pine trees, aluminum siding, aluminum roofs, mylar in the insulation, high rise buildings and plain old topography can all affect reception.

Thrift stores are still accepting some analog TVs. Take old sets to the Ada County landfill on Fridays or Saturdays. Since TVs are hazardous waste, proper disposal is free. Also, mygreenelectronics.org lists 17 recycling centers in the Treasure Valley.

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