Broadcasters’ switch to DTV to be staggered

Posted Feb. 05, 2009, at 9:51 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Now that both houses of Congress have approved a bill delaying the mandated switch from analog to digital signals for all full-power TV stations, Bangor area broadcasters are deciding what the extra time means for them.

Michael Palmer, general manager of WVII ABC 7, said the decision to move the deadline from Feb. 17 to June 12 does not change his station’s plans to switch later this month. WVII is actually abandoning analog for digital one day earlier on Feb. 16.

“It’s time to make the change,” Palmer said simply Thursday.

WABI-TV5 General Manager Michael Young said his station, a local CBS affiliate, plans to broadcast in both analog and digital until June 12, even though it will add considerably to WABI’s operating costs.

“We feel we have an obligation to the public,” he said. “There appear to be many more viewers who need more time. And we felt that it’s important to have at least one analog stay on the air for emergency information.”

Judy Horan at WLBZ2 in Bangor, the local NBC affiliate, said her station has not decided whether it will make the digital switch this month or in June.

“We’re weighing out the issue, so I would rather reserve any comment at this time,” she said.

While Congress has approved the delay to June, it does allow stations to make the switch sooner if they choose. The primary reason for the extra four months is to give consumers more time to purchase digital converter boxes. The federal government budgeted millions of dollars to subsidize coupons for converter boxes, but that program has maxed out. Some lawmakers have lobbied to include additional funding for the boxes in the pending stimulus package, but its unclear whether that item will be in the finished bill.

Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, said she was not surprised that Congress approved a delay, but she’s not convinced it’s a great idea.

“I’m sitting here feeling like we’re first and goal and Lucy has stolen the football from Charlie Brown again,” she said. “Everyone was already geared up for Feb. 17.”

Young said he doesn’t mind the delay, but he said the Federal Communications Commission mishandled the converter box situation.

“There are a lot of people who were left without coupons,” he said. “Also, I think there was a gross underestimation that in rural areas, converter boxes alone were not sufficient.”

Young’s advice to consumers was to act sooner rather than later, even with the delay.

At least one Maine station, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, made its switch to digital early, on Jan. 11. Not surprisingly, MPBN has taken some lumps.

“The rate of phone calls has gone down considerably,” said Gil Maxwell, chief technology officer for MPBN. “We’re still glad we went early. We know it’s been difficult for everybody, but whether it’s Feb. 17 or June 12, it will eventually happen.”

Goucher said the biggest problem with the delay is that stations may make their switches on staggered dates.

“Some stations are still going to go this month, some will wait; it’s just going to confuse people,” she said. “I would urge consumers to rescan their digital boxes once a week just in case.”

erussell@bangordailynews.net

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