Growing pains: MPBN takes hit for digital TV switch

Posted Jan. 18, 2009, at 8:02 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.

Growing pains.

That’s how Maine Public Broadcasting Network officials have characterized the first week since they switched their five television towers from analog to digital signals.

“I liken it to construction on the interstate,” said Gil Maxwell, MPBN’s senior vice president and chief technology officer. “While it’s going on, you swear and complain, but as soon as it’s done, you forget about it and you’re better off.”

That may be a small consolation to many in eastern and northern Maine who have seen their MPBN signal disappear. In response to an online query, many viewers contacted the Bangor Daily News to explain how the switch has affected them.

“MPBN is important to us,” said Mark Phillips, who lives in Milo and lost his signal. “We don’t watch much TV but my son loves ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Thomas the Tank Engine.’ I don’t know how to explain to him that it won’t be on anymore.”

Deborah Johnson, who lives in Bangor, said she bought a converter box and a new indoor enhanced antenna and still can’t get MPBN.

“I placed a call and was told that the tower is in Dixmont and that they have focused the signal on southern Maine,” she said. “He said that they did not have the funds to include the Bangor area and northern Maine in their signal. This is outrageous.”

On the other hand, Bill Moores, who lives in Old Town and has an outdoor antenna pointed directly toward MPBN’s nearest tower, said he gets the signal OK.

“The most important thing about the MPBN shutdown right now is the number of viewers not digital-ready,” he said. “If you are digital-ready you probably didn’t notice any difference.”

While TV stations are not required to make the switch from analog to digital until Feb. 17, MPBN decided to go early. Maxwell said the station did so for a number of reasons, but mostly to give viewers time to adjust.

Unfortunately, MPBN is taking the brunt of the criticism — at least in Maine — because no other stations have switched.

“We knew there would be issues,” Maxwell said. “This isn’t unexpected.”

David Morse, vice president for advancement and new media at MPBN, said the station has been fielding hundreds of calls each day since the Jan. 11 switch. He said the problems range from simple (calibrating their converter box properly) to more complex (they don’t have the right type of antenna) to excruciatingly technical (UHF versus VHF).

“We walk it through with them the best we can,” he said. “But there is a group that, due to the signal, it’s just not reaching. People have been really understanding.”

Maxwell said that in the Bangor market, consumers to the north and east are seeing the weakest signal, which was expected. MPBN moved its WMEB-TV tower to the other side of the city to coincide with the digital signal.

He also stressed that digital signals are much more line-of-sight-oriented than analog, and indoor antennas, or “rabbit ears,” often do not work well with digital signals.

“Unfortunately, when all this digital switchover stuff came out, the [Federal Communications Commission] was giving people the impression that as long as they got a digital converter box, they would be fine,” Maxwell said. “Now, they are talking more about antennas.”

Additionally, the nature of a digital TV signal produces an all-or-nothing proposition. With analog, the signal gradually fades, but with digital, the picture normally is either clear or nonexistent. That has been hard for many.

In spite of the problems, the FCC estimates that WMEB-TV in the Bangor market has gained 69,474 viewers because of the digital switch and has lost only 12,785. That’s a net gain of 56,689.

Maxwell said the difference is, people are not calling to complain if they are getting a signal, even if they never got it before.

Other stations in Maine are likely to experience similar growing pains come Feb. 17, unless that deadline is extended.

Last week a member of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team floated the idea of delaying the Feb. 17 deadline. Later, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., incoming chairman of the powerful Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, proposed legislation that would delay the switch to digital TV nearly four months, to June 12.

In a separate move, the House Appropriations Committee also recommended $650 million in new funds for the DTV transition. That money would help fund more coupons for the digital converter box.

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