Analog shut-off will affect few TVs here
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A week from today when the remaining full-power Pittsburgh TV stations broadcasting in analog shut off that signal and complete the transition to digital, few local viewers are expected to lose access to television broadcasts.
Any TV already hooked up to cable, satellite or a digital-to-analog converter box is set for the digital era.
The most recent Nielsen figures find just 1.37 percent of households in Southwestern Pennsylvania are completely unprepared. Three analog shut-off tests on local stations on May 21 resulted in just 138 phone calls to a Federal Communications Commission DTV help line.
The analog shut-off, scheduled for 11:59:59 p.m. on June 12, will result in KDKA, WPCW, WPXI and WTAE moving to digital broadcasting only. (WPCW, which has not been broadcasting in digital, will begin digital broadcasts at that time.)
These stations join WPCB, WPGH, WPMY, WQED and WQEX, which already made the leap in recent months. KDKA and WTAE will continue to broadcast a "nightlight" analog signal for 30 days which will consist of a loop broadcast of a program about DTV conversion and a phone number for a FCC help line.
Despite Nielsen's report of 98 percent preparedness rate locally, the FCC still lists the Pittsburgh market as one of its "hot spots" for concern. Rick Kaplan, the FCC's deputy coordinator for the DTV transition, said many factors go into determining hot spot markets, but the one most applicable to Southwestern Pennsylvania is likely concerns about a high population of senior citizens who may be confused by the new technology.
Engineers at local TV stations say the number of phone calls they're receiving about DTV conversion has declined in recent weeks.
"I'm definitely getting far fewer calls and the last few have been in reference to signing up for the converter box coupons," said Annette Parks, WPXI director of engineering. "Those people who have been calling don't have access to the Internet so I've been signing up [for coupons] online for them and sending them the receipt."
Government-issued coupons good for $40 toward a converter box (costing $40-$70) will be available until July 31 through http://www.dtv2009.gov or by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC.
Other opportunities for DTV help include:
• Best Buy's Geek squad is providing free converter box installation in 31 states, including Pennsylvania, through June 30 in store service areas. Request installation by calling 877-229-3889 between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.
• The FCC has awarded Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania a contract to operate two digital TV transition walk-in help centers. The locations will be open through June 19, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12-8 p.m. on Sunday. The centers are located at 1601 Brighton Road, North Side, and 2600 E. Carson St., South Side.
Among local callers to the FCC help line on May 21, the greatest percentage (25.77 percent) had questions or reported problems about reception difficulties. Given the region's hilly terrain, that's not surprising.
Looking at FCC-generated maps at http://www.dtv.gov (input your zip code in the upper right corner, then click on "DTV Reception Maps" on the next screen), it's possible to see the predicted signal reach of digital versus analog. Many Pittsburgh stations look to have a similar reach under both scenarios with a few exceptions.
WPCW, Pittsburgh's CW affiliate, will move its transmitter from Jeanette to near Downtown Pittsburgh once it begins broadcasting in digital next week. As a result some viewers east of Greensburg may no longer be able to tune in Channel 19 while some viewers north and west of Downtown Pittsburgh will get WPCW for the first time.
Similarly, WTAE-DT will not reach some viewers in Somerset and Cambria counties who were able to get the station in analog.
"Stations are required by FCC rules to advise viewers if they will lose more than 2 percent of viewers," the FCC's Kaplan acknowledged. WTAE has been broadcasting such messages. "Certain stations have more challenges than others."
There's no blanket reason why viewers will be impacted, said Dave Kasperek, director of engineering at WTAE. "It's all over the map. I take the time to personally return every phone call and the advice I offer is different depending on where they live."
Re-scanning for channels on a digital-to-analog converter is one advisable place to start if you have reception difficulties, especially anytime you move or change antennas.
Another factor could be the antenna viewers are using.
"The industry did a great job of telling people to get a converter box," Kasperek said. "The industry, in general, didn't do as good a job of saying, you might need a different antenna than the one you use or you might have to put it on the roof."
Kasperek said rabbit ears are the worst possible antenna for DTV.
"The general advice I'm giving everyone is an old saying [broadcast] engineers have: At the end of the day, elevation wins," he said. "You're always doing the most good by placing an antenna as high as physically possible as is safe and practical. ... And the fewer physical obstacles, the better."
Kasperek helped one viewer who was pointing his antenna due South toward his chimney. Most TV signals come from northwest of Downtown Pittsburgh (WTAE and WPCB come from the southeast; WQED's tower is in Oakland). Kasperek suggested the viewer point his antenna toward a window, which resolved the reception issue.
Another suggestion: Ask neighbors about their reception experiences or try plugging in your address at the Web site TVFool.com to see what channels you should be able to receive.
As for antenna types, Kasperek said recommendations are all over the map depending on many variables, including location. Old-school rooftop VHF/UHF antennas may well do the trick. For close-in viewers, he suggests the DB2 from Antennas Direct (about $40), available online at various sites, including Amazon.com.
"It looks like two bow ties lying on top of a cookie cooling grid," Kasperek said, noting he saw a similar antenna ("a big goofy circle on top of a cookie cooling grid") at Best Buy for the first time on a recent trip to the store.
One caveat: DB2 and similar made-for-HD antennas are often designed to pick up primarily UHF stations. In digital, most Pittsburgh stations broadcast in UHF, but not all of them: WQED and WPCW have VHF channel positions, which might necessitate a different antenna.
Kasperek said Channel 4 is preparing a remedy for a long-standing reception problem for viewers trying to pick up WTAE in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Lawrenceville, the Southside Slopes and some other areas. The station plans to add a repeater to WQED's tower in Oakland, perhaps as soon as this summer, allowing digital viewers in these areas to begin picking up WTAE over the air.
One expectation viewers should cast aside: Getting signals from stations in TV markets other than Pittsburgh. Depending on your location, perhaps you'll still be able to pull in signals from stations in Johnstown or Steubenville, but if so, consider that a bonus. The only stations the FCC expects viewers to be able to receive are those in their own town.
KDKA chief meteorologist Jeff Verszyla is recovering from a concussion he received in an accident Sunday while playing recreational softball. Another player's knee collided with Verszyla's face.
"Just in time for HD," Verszyla noted with gallows humor when reached by phone this week. KDKA is expected to begin news broadcasts in HD on June 15.
Verszyla said he was knocked out by the collision and was given 23 stitches in the hospital. Recovery will take a few weeks; his goal is to be back on the air June 22. In the meantime, other KDKA weather staffers (and freelancer Dave Trygar) will fill in.
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In this week's Tuned In podcast, movie editor Barbara Vancheri and I discuss the "MTV Movie Awards," Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show" debut and the season finale of "Medium." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.
First Published June 5, 2009 12:00 am