Digital TV Switchover Looking Like Massive Confusion-Generation Plan

from the rabbit-ears dept

The switchover from analog to digital broadcast TV signals, on tap for February, has been publicized for some time and the necessary converter boxes for older TVs have been made available relatively easily and cheaply. But concerns that the FCC wouldn’t be able to manage the transition are looking well-founded. After an earlier test in Wilmington, N.C., that threw off warning signs about the nationwide reaction to the switch, further tests are being carried out across the country, in hopes that the tests will give people an idea if their DTV gear is working, or reinforce to the estimated 19 million Americans who need the converters that the deadline is coming. But the tests themselves are causing plenty of confusion: one writer notes that the test in her area generated both passing and failure messages on different channels, suggesting a problem with the stations, rather than her equipment. The failure messages came despite the TV getting its signal from DirecTV, when the FCC’s been saying all along that people connected to cable or satellite don’t need to do anything. Again, just an estimated 19 million Americans still get their TV directly from the over-the-air broadcast signals, so a fairly small chunk of the population should be affected by the switchover. But you get the feeling the FCC’s feeble education campaign won’t prevent confusion for many, many more.

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Comments on “Digital TV Switchover Looking Like Massive Confusion-Generation Plan”

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ehrichweiss says:

missed something..

The linked “article” says little-to-nothing about their setup. It would be good to know whether they were using the satellite broadcast of the station or the OTA broadcast; if it was the DirecTV broadcast then we need to know whether the station was broadcasting to DirecTV in analog mode…waaay too many questions and thusly the author doesn’t give any details that would support your assertions.

This is basically a non-story without any details.

PRMan (profile) says:

I'm sure they've done tons of things right...

The media just never reports it when they do because, well, where would the fun in that be?

This transition has been handled very well. I’ve followed it from the very beginning (it was supposed to happen in 2006 originally). DirecTV will eventually get a digital signal from the PBS station mentioned in the article.

This was a test for DirecTV as well. “Wow, lots of people are complaining about this station and that one. I guess we need to make sure we’re getting a digital signal from them.”

andrew says:

There are two digital transitions going on that people may confuse as one. A digital tv transition and a digital cable transition. You can read about the difference here
Perhaps the passing and failure messages comment in the article is related to this? I know in my area they have already switched and my tv’s no longer show anything unless there is a cable box attached. The explanation was that “analog cable” was no longer offered.

matt says:

Isn't confusion the whole point?

Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Comcast et al are chomping at the bit waiting for February…

…February AKA the time when masses of stupid Americans go “uh… the TV don’t work no more, I think we gotta get cable.”

It was never about superior technology, never about freeing up wireless spectrum, and always about big communcation lobby.

interval says:

This is such a non issue:

Step 1: Do you get your tv signal via rabbit ears.
Step 2: No. Go to END.
Step 3: Yes. Ok, you need a converter box or start subscribing to cable.

The only remotely glomable bit of news here is how hard the cable companies have tried to muddy up the information in an effort to get more subscribers. But lets be real; if you’re still getting your tv from the air you need to get in to the modern age and get cable. As much as I hate cable companies, tv over the air is nothing pretty.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Re:

“As much as I hate cable companies, tv over the air is nothing pretty.”

Huh? I call free 720p/1080i TV quite pretty. And I get every channel I need or want over the air. I get all the major networks, 4 PBS channels, 24-hour weather substreams, 24-hour children’s programming substream, and more. I can’t think of a single thing I would want to watch on cable that I can’t currently watch in free, superior hi-def. Superior? Yes, as long as you have a decent signal, the picture quality of OTA HD blows both cable and satellite away.

Oliver Wendell Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“But lets be real; if you’re still getting your tv from the air you need to get in to the modern age and get cable.”

It must be nice to live some place where every single person can get cable, as opposed to some place rural where the cable company doesn’t seem to care about the thousands and thousands of homes outside the city limits.

Those people have two options – put up a rooftop antenna and be happy with the 3 channels available (1 FOX, 1 ABC and 1 PBS) or go with a satellite company and do with out any local programming at all (because the satellite companies are in no hurry to meet their federally mandated requirement to put all channels that want to be on satellite on satellite – they have until 2013, so what’s the rush?).

These are the people who are going to suffer the most because they live far enough away from the transmitters that they won’t get a good digital signal.

I work for a small station in the midwest. We currently operate an analog transmitter with over 2 MW of output. The company that owns the company that owns us gave us an old digital transmitter to use after the transition – it tops out at 9 KW – that means we’ll be putting out less than 0.5% of the signal power we have now – couple that with the so called “digital cliff” (there is no fuzzy picture – you get a good picture or you get nothing) and viewers in our area are going to be in a world of hurt.

They promise that we’ll get a better digital transmitter “real soon now” but I’ve been hearing that for a long time and so I’m not holding my breath while I wait.

Anonymous Coward #42 says:

Re: Response to #10

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. First of all, if you have a newer TV with a digital tuner, you DON’T need a converter box. The problem with that is that most TV owners are clueless as to whether or not their TV has a digital tuner, and it’s not very easy to find that information.

Also, some cable companies, even ones that have offered “digital cable” for some time now, still broadcast some of their channels in analog. The problem is that now they’re switching those channels over to digital as well, which means if you are currently getting cable from them straight from the wall to your TV, you will need a decoder box from them after the fact. And while this conversion is similar to the broadcast conversion, it’s not directly related, and that’s partly what’s adding a TON of confusion to the mix. Add to that the fact that some cable companies are intentionally lying about the conversion to try and get new subscribers and you have a real big mess on your hands.

As for the bit about “get into the modern age,” you can not possibly think that just because people don’t have cable or satellite that they’re not living in today’s world. Some people have no need or desire for all those TV stations, and cable isn’t offered in many rural areas. Sure, there’s satellite service too, but many people can’t afford cable or satellite, period. For them, over-the-air channels are everything, regardless of how “pretty” they are. Please realize that not everybody lives in the same world you do.

mrong says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’d have to agree, where I live it’s not possible to get cable, and I don’t care enough to get satellite tv. With a big rooftop antenna I get about 25 channels, a lot of PBS type stuff, and duplicates of all the major networks, plus 24hr weather stations. I’d imagine we’ll just be getting more and more stations, every time I scan a few more pop up. Why pay for cable? It’s all the same crap, and I get mine for free, and it looks really, really good.

Forestryee says:

Re: Re:

Why even get cable? Why buy satellite?
Free TV is available over airwaves the public owns.
Just because something is offered doesn’t mean we should take it. How much stuff do you pay for every month that you never watch? With cable you have all these choices, but you can basically only watch one thing at a time. With over the air, you don’t have as many choices, but it’s free. Why waste money?

Anon (and on and on and on) says:


This whole thing has been and will probably continue to be a clusterfsck of galactic proportions. What engineer in their right mind believes that “if it ain’t broke, don’t *&%@ with it” is a bad idea?

If you live in a rural area and/or you’re not within spitting distance of all your OTA towers, then not only are you going to have to get “The Box” you’re probably going to have to upgrade your antenna as well (they don’t seem to mention *that* in any of they PSA’s).

Where I live I can pull in really good analog signals from something like 8 stations spread between two larger TV markets (Raleigh-Durham and Greensoro NC – I didn’t say “major” just “larger”). Some of these signals are close to cable quality – crisp, clear, no static – couldn’t ask for better. Plus, depending on weather conditions, I can pull down an additional 5 or 6 stations that, while kinda fuzzy sometimes, usually come in “good enough” to watch. No, I can’t get cable (gasp! how primitive!) and while I have terrain that would be perfect for satellite, I really don’t have the desire to spend $30-$70/month (although that’s an ongoing battle with the rest of the family).

In October I finally went out and bought a subsidized DT box, then when that was DOA out of the box, replaced it with another one. Yes, setup is maroon-simple. Plug everything in, let it sniff out the airwaves, and voila! Depending on the weather my “upgraded and improved” system now gets a whopping 3 – 6 stations and their “sub” channels (whatever the DT terminology is for 16-1, 16-2, etc.). *NOT* included in this lineup are two of the major network stations that I could previously get just wonderfully over the old-and-busted analog airwaves. Additionally, if there’s *any* type of atmospheric disturbance greater than a sparrow fart in the area those stations will break, jumble, and garble more than a satellite signal in a thunderdumper, then disappear for lack of signal. Static I can live through – digital signal breakup makes it totally unwatchable.

Don’t even get me started on what they’re using the subchannels for (24-hour “Worship” channel anybody?).

How is this an improvement?

Dan says:

Re: clusterfsck

I feel your pain, I live between Madison and Milwaukee WI and an almost identical situation. I was faced with installing outdoor antennas, either one with a rotor or two fixed antennas. Instead I got cable, not happy with the cost or the programming. Now I have perfect reception of 80 channels of crap and infomercials for only $45 per month. I want to castrate the politicians that stole my PUBLIC bandwidth and replaced it with a limp technology that will leave many without equivalent service.

Rick says:

The FCC IS NOT looking out for consumers.

In the area I live, we will be LOSING both the NBC and ABC affiliates and possibly PBS as well. They are all available now over the air (OTA), but will no longer be available starting February 17th.
The digital transition DOES NOT force the television stations to maintain their current broadcast area coverage.
While the CBS and FOX affiliates worked out a tower sharing deal locally, the other two network stations are instead sharing their tower 50 miles north of us.
Unfortunately, there is a hill between the two cities that blocks digital broadcasts for 90% of my city. That’s over 15,000 people that live here that will lose half their OTA broadcasts, but the FCC doesn’t care – all they require is you switch to digital – end of story.
Neither of the satellite networks carries the digital or HD feeds, nor do they intend to until at least 2010 or 2011. So, now I have to pay an extra $5 a month to get my locals from DISH.
Of course, I could build a 200 foot antenna at a cost of thousands of dollars to get the feeds bouncing over the hill between me and the towers, but I doubt the municipal airport with a runway 100 feet from my house would appreciate that much – if it’s even legal…

hegemon13 says:

Re: The FCC IS NOT looking out for consumers.

Instead of spending a lot of money yourself, you could try petitioning your city or neighborhood association to build a repeater tower. I live in a small city outside of Kansas City. Receiving signals from KC would be impossible without building a radio tower. However, my city has a very tall repeater tower, which picks up the signal with powerful antennas, and then rebroadcasts it. I can point my UHF antenna toward the kitchen window, out of which I can see the tower, and I get a perfect signal on every single channel.

Rick says:

Re: Re: The FCC IS NOT looking out for consumers.

I doubt a repeater tower is feasible. The Michigan economy is doing far worse than most.

Unemployment here in rural northern Michigan is double the national average and now most of the auto part plants here are shutting down too, which accounts for about 25% of the remaining jobs.

There is no money for community repeater towers…

You nerer know says:

Ok, here is a bit of public news that has been overlooked. The FCC and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) have been asked the Amateur Radio community to assist in the transition. This is a “No Cost to Government” technical resource to help the general public in setting up these converter boxes. Sounds good in theory. We’ll have to wait see how this works out.
Now as far as cable and Satellite Subscribers, several of the local broadcasters are making unreasonable demands on the Satellite and Cable providers. Locally Fisher Broadcasting (CBS) is demanding an 80% increase to rebroadcast their signal over cable or satellite. I think the local cable co. has caved in but is passing the cost on to the end users. Direct TV is not so no CBS unless you are using a converter… My guess is, as we get closer there will be more issues as local broadcasters try to squeeze more money out of the general public. The only exception will be PBS who have been on the band wagon since the very beginning and is having the least trouble with the change over. Go PBS!

Ron Larson (profile) says:


I am not impressed how this is being handled. I’ve tried to set up my mom with her receiver, north of Tucson (Oro Valley).

(1) Many of the stations are already broadcasting a digital signal are moving frequencies on the 17-Feb. So if you go ahead and set up ahead if time, everything will change on you again.

(2) Right now I can only get 2 digital stations. There is a huge mountain blocking the transmission of many of the major broadcasters. As far as I have been able to tell, they have no plans to fix this.

(3) The FCC is allowing many smaller stations to stay analog after the transition. So if you install a digital receiver, you have to switch between analog and digital to all of the stations.

(4) I tried an indoor antennae… only got 2 stations. So it looks like I am going to have to purchase a large roof top antennae for my mom to pick up more digital stations. That means I will also have to install a grounding system because of lighting. So it looks like I will need to spend a few hundred bucks on this.

Jeff Rife says:

Re: SNAFU City

Many of the stations are already broadcasting a digital signal are moving frequencies on the 17-Feb. So if you go ahead and set up ahead if time, everything will change on you again.

This is the only thing that is really worrying me. I’ve had OTA digital since September of 2002, and it works well. Most of my tuners (I have 4) will have no problem, but my HD TiVo has all the channel mapping information inside itself, with no way for me to manually change it. So, I have to rely on TiVo’s ability to switch over quickly and accurately.

This wouldn’t be a problem if I knew TiVo could get accurate information from the stations, but I think that will be the big problem.

Tony says:

Much ado about nothing

This is a non-issue Mike. These tests are working, by and large. The people that are “confused” are stupid and confused. If they see both messages on different channels, it means they have an HDTV and in the case you mentioned where the lady had direct-tv, well, that’s a non-issue as well since in both cases when the cut-over happens, they won’t be affected and they’ll go back to just being stupid and forget they were confused. They were never part of that 19 million in the first place.

For the 19 million who WILL be affected, they are getting the signal (pun intended) loud and clear, that they need to do something by 2/19. In my area, they have a blitz campaign going on, and it’s hard not to understand that you need a converter if you get your tv OTA. I’m not so sure you can characterize it as a “feeble education campaign”. They talk about it on the news every night, commercials fill the airwaves, there are frequent tests. It seems you just wanted to cry about the FCC again. Calm down man, Kevin Martin will be gone soon, then you can preen your feathers back into place.

My prediction is that most of the 19 million people will be just fine. The only exceptions will be those who procrastinated (and that’s their own fault), or that can’t afford to pay the small difference between the FCC card and the price of the converter, and no amount of education can prevent that.


Anonymous Coward says:

There will be massive confusion

Every time I’ve ever seen this topic mentioned online, there has been confusion and incorrect posts. There are posters above who clearly don’t understand what’s happening, or how it will work. And we’re all online, internet-savy, sophisticated techies! There are a lot of people out there without internet or cable… and who will be without television, soon.

Mark Regan says:

One Thing Is Certain

The FCC doesn’t give a cr*p about the rural Americans who will LOSE ALL over the air television because of their action, unless they are rich enough to spend $750 a YEAR on satellite reception (because there is NO CABLE serving these remote rural areas of America) or thousands of dollars on a large tower and antenna system.

In my ANALOG OTA location, I can receive 9 stations with my current antenna system. With the new DIGITAL system and the REQUIRED converter for EACH of my televisions, I can now receive only ONE DIGITAL station, due to the diminished range of the digital signal. (The various transmitters are an average of a hundred miles from my house, too far for the digital signal to reach.)

So we rural poor are simply OUT OF LUCK thanks to President George Bush and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

francine atkinson says:

Re: Re: rural poor are simply OUT OF LUCK

What planet do you live on, Dave? It must be one without the need for food or lumber. I live in rural Wisconsin( do you eat cheese or drink milk?) and have just connected my digital converter to find that NO stations are strong enough to get thru here. This is a REAL problem because we NEED weather reports and alerts to do our job of feeding all you “city folks”. I believed all the goverment dribble about how this would be a good thing for the “people”. Now I realise that I will be forced back into the 1950’s and get my news and weather from the radio until the goverment screws that up, too.. Progress, my BUTT!!! Just more payola from special interest lobbyists.

alternatives() says:

Re: Re: Re: rural poor are simply OUT OF LUCK

What planet do you live on, Dave?

Dave lives on ‘planet marketing’ – a place that is magical and disconnected from reality. When one is a marketing type – if a bit of reality is not ‘considered good’ that is a failing in marketing – not a failing of reality.

The nice thing is Mr. Barnes is not a reg. poster here so his ‘special kind’ of thinking doesn’t pollute TechDirt.

Jerry Leichter (profile) says:

It's not just rural America that loses

I live in a suburb of New York – within 40 miles or so of the city. Currently, with an outdoor antenna, I can get clear OTA signals for 7 VHF stations. (These are all from NY. There are two Connecticut stations, but they are in different directions and would require a rotator, which I don’t have.)

According to the official sites tha tell you what kind of an antenna/amp configuration I’ll need for the digital era, I’ll get … no signals at all. Why? It happens that *all* 7 of the VHF analogue signals move to UHF digital channels. These don’t propagate as well.

I’ve actually got a digital TV. It picks up *one* digital subchannel. What I don’t know is if (a) the other stations are actually broadcasting digital signals yet; (b) whether, as someone has noted, that digital signal is actually on a VHF frequency that will change at the cutover.

I can’t be the only one in this situation, but there’s been no discussion of it anywhere that I’ve seen. The local cable service, AT&T, and the two satellite services, would of course be happy to take my money – though just try to figure out from their web sites just want basic service would cost. As it stands, I may just give up on TV – most things are available on line.

alternatives() says:

Dave Barnes

Simple solution.

Really? A simple Solution? Lets here it!

Move to the big city.

Naw, I have a simpler solution. Stop watching TV.

Broadcast TV exists as a way to push a marketing message, and who needs a bunch of Marketing Tactics in their life? From what I’ve seen, marketing people have inflated egos and as a whole are not worth a bucket of warm spit.

And, stop whining.

Tell ya what. You 1st.

Forestryee says:

DTV Sucks

I don’t believe your headline to be true. In fact, I already know people who have lost television signals entirely.
There will absolutely be instances when no amount of money will be able to solve the DTV signal problems. No matter how high an antenna is placed, these signals just may not come. Then, the absolute only option willl be to sign up to satellite service – if it is available. Let’s face it; even in todays technologically advance world, there are still hundreds-of-millions of people who live outside cities, towns, villages, many of whom cannot connect to cable, because it is not economically feasible for cable operators to expand there.
We run the risk of disenfranchising millions of people simply by turning from analog to digital.
Well, I say no! This is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. We absolutely cannot allow the government to force this on us, when very few people wanted this change at all. The analog system is far more reliable and reaches 98% of all the people in the US. We worked for decades to get television coverage to the people, and now we are almost starting again from scratch. I hope (when the transition finally takes place), that the millions of people that lose service will remember to call the FCC, congress, representatives, broadcasters, and anyone else they can think of and tell them they feel this is unacceptable. The truth must be told!
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Do a Google news search for Digital TV Maine or Digital TV Arizona. You’ll find plenty of articles that will tell you that several thousand have just lost all television. But the media and the government doesn’t want to make it sound so bad. So you won’t hear about this so much until after the switch is made, when it’s too late.

JT says:

Free TV a Thing of the Past....

I can no longer watch free tv because the channels are too choppy. Upgrades this, try different antannae that. It’s all extra moiney for the people who are behind this downgrade. We are now forced to pay the cable companies to have the ability to view anything. It all makes sense now. Treasury makes $20bil giving “old free tv” bandwidth the wireless companies while geting more from cable lobbyists, etc. Once again, the little people get screwed over. Free tv is a thing of the past…. and the government likes it that way.

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