Digital deadline goes smoothly

Posted June 19, 2009, at 7:42 p.m.

At this time last week, television stations across the state and country braced for a wave of complaints about the final switch from analog to digital signals.

According to those in the broadcasting industry, though, that wave never really came.

“It was sort of anticlimactic,” Suzanne Goucher, executive director of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, said Friday. “I half expected my phone to be ringing off the hook. In a strange way, Maine was fortunate because [Maine Public Broadcasting Network] turned its analog signal off back in January. That was our big ‘oh no moment.’”

Aside from MPBN, WVII-ABC7 and sister station WFVX-Fox 22 abandoned analog for good in February. WLBZ2 and WABI-TV5, however, operated both analog and digital signals until June 12, the cutoff date for all public stations.

Steve Hiltz, program director for WABI, said his station received a lot of calls at the beginning of last week, but most concerns were remedied quickly.

“For others who are having problems, it’s still somewhat of a mystery,” he said. “We’re still trying to assess how we can help people, but it’s all guesswork.”

As local television stations work to remedy problems on their end, help may be on the way from the federal government.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe introduced legislation in April called the “DTV Cliff Effect Assistance Act,” that would establish a $125 million fund to reimburse for the construction of digital repeaters or translator towers in rural areas.

“Despite all of the preparations for digital television, there are still concerns,” Collins said in recent statement. “I have talked with many people in Maine who have purchased a converter box yet they still cannot receive a digital signal or they are experiencing a drastic decrease in service. These gaps in service, known as the ‘cliff effect,’ are often the result of terrain or distance from the broadcast tower.”

Earlier this month, Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud introduced the same bill in the House.

“It’s clear that analog and digital signals do not act the same,” Michaud said recently. “It’s important that all Mainers are able to continue to get news and information about local and national events. Extending the digital TV transition date gave consumers extra time to buy converter boxes. But now, through no fault of their own, some may experience trouble viewing the new signal even when they use the converter box.”

Michael Palmer, manager at WVII, said his station has weathered the digital storm well since the switch in late February.

“We get calls once in a while still, but we understand that digital signals are simply not the greatest technology,” he said. “The nature of the signal makes it so that hilly communities, which Maine has plenty of, are not going to fare well.”

In other words, even though television stations have not been flooded with complaints, it doesn’t mean there are not frustrations out there.

Mark Philips, who lives in Milo, lost MPBN in January and hasn’t been able to get it since. More recently, he has been able to get signals for WLBZ2 and WVII, but not WABI.

“It’s OK, though, because I think I’m going to get rid of my TV altogether,” he said.

Regina Rooney, who lives in Old Town, recently purchased both a converter box and a new high-powered UHF-VHF antenna. She gained some channels but lost MPBN, a trade she wasn’t happy about.

“But there’s more to it,” she wrote by e-mail. “Some of the digital channels don’t always come in regularly.”

Greg Rossel, who lives in Troy, also wrote by e-mail that he has an attic antenna with a booster at his home, and has lost both WLBZ2 and WVII.

“We never really watched them anyway, so I guess you could say, the switchover worked out OK for us,” he said.

Bob Deschenes of Princeton has tried a booster and a new antenna, but has still lost some channels he used to get.

“We even put our antenna on top of the roof and [connected] a new coaxial cable,” he said. “According to the maps we are just too far to receive anything. I don’t think this was thought through before enacted.”

Areas that are experiencing the most problems, according to Goucher, fringe coverage areas such as rural Hancock County, northern Penobscot County and parts of Piscataquis County.

“I’ve heard no reports of people shooting their TV sets, which is good,” she said. “But, I suspect some folks have gone to cable or satellite, although I don’t have any data to support that.”

Goucher said she thinks the Cliff Effect Assistance Act would help plug some gaps in service by creating additional towers, but she predicted that the process could take awhile.

“Once you put up a tower, though, it can be reused for other things as well, such as cell phones,” she said.

What can people do in the meantime?

“Try moving your antenna to a window,” Goucher said. “Basically, do the least expensive thing first and then keep trying.”

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