I Want My PBS

TV takes new investment in digital era


We would not have noticed the June 12 DTV Day at my house but for one little problem: On the day that the nation switched to digital over-the-air television signals, we lost Reading Rainbow and Sesame Street.

We couldn't get Channel 4, Idaho Public Television, or most of the other channels that had come in before when the networks were broadcasting in both analog and digital. It's not that we were caught off guard. Like millions of Americans, we traded in our government coupon for a digital converter box last year, hooked it up correctly and tested it. Before June 12, we were getting crystal-clear digital television through our Access HD converter box. After June 12: just KTVB Channel 7 and sometimes KTRV Fox 12.

Then I bumped into Jeff Tucker, production manager at IdahoPTV. Tucker said he'd come out and look at my system, and even bring IdahoPTV General Manager and DTV wonk Peter Morrill along.

So after work one day, Morrill pulled up to my house in a minivan full of antennas and cables and boxes of audio-visual equipment and started experimenting. First, he showed me a signal prediction Google Earth map of my house, which is in the North End near Hill Road. I was in the red zone--for decent reception--but just a block east of a greenish dead zone closer to the hills.

"I've discovered that virtually all of my good friends live up against the Foothills," said Morrill, who has apparently Google Earthed all his pals. "I seem to have no friends who live out in the red."

IdahoPTV broadcasts from Deer Point at Bogus Basin. The signal carries past Ontario, Ore., to the west, north to Cascade, east to Mountain Home and south into the Owyhees. But in the analog days, the signal was in the VHF band, which travels better in the mountains, filling in valleys. IdahoPTV, along with channels 2 and 6, pulled UHF frequencies in the DTV switch, and their new signals don't carry as well.

The engineers examined my setup and generally approved, though they said something in code about my rabbit ears. Morrill went out to the van and emerged with the Terk, an indoor antenna that is more Starship Enterprise than rabbit ears. Still no go. Then, Tucker installed a small amplifier between the Terk and the Access HD and rescanned the channels. It worked! We had all of the old channels plus it picked up Channel 39, an independent broadcast station I'd never heard of.

But then Morrill stood up from the couch, as if to get a beer, and the screen went fuzzy. So we went outside to the big guns.

The guys had brought along a 10-foot roof antenna, $59.99 from Lowe's, and a long pole to mount it on. We fed the coaxial cable through my window and rescanned. It looked like plenty of signal power and no indoor antenna for body mass or curtains to block. Morrill recommended that I get a roof antenna.

"The pitch of your roof is not what I would call lethal for normal humanoid activity," he said.

In the last month or so, some 23 percent of over-the-air television viewers switched to cable or satellite, paying the monthly fee and getting more channels, according to one Nielsen survey. Nanci Doucet, marketing manager for Cable One in Nampa, said she noted a couple of hundred calls in the last month. The guy at Radio Shack, where I bought my roof antenna ($79.99, plus $24.99 for a chimney mount and $11.17 for a mast), said he was selling tons of them and they seemed to work everywhere except in a pocket around Collister Drive.

As they packed up to go, Morrill pulled out his phone and fired up the week's Idaho Reports in a matter of seconds, pulling it off the station's Web site. While the station is broadcasting from a big tower up on a mountain, there is a cell tower every mile or so. It made me wonder if it was worth $150 and a night climbing around on the roof to get my TV reception back when I could be beaming Sesame Street into my kid's smart phone.

"I think people with wireless devices have gotten spoiled," Morrill said.