Some TV viewers using an antenna find fault with digital signal
By: Chris Rickert, Wisconsin State Journal
A little more than two months before the nationwide switch to digital-only television, Madison stations are fielding calls from viewers frustrated that the quality of the picture on their screens has gotten worse with the new technology.
WMTV (Ch. 15), WKOW (Ch. 27) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT, Ch. 21) are among those who said they've gotten the calls, and station officials say the reasons for the poor pictures can be due to a range of factors, including the television's antenna and viewer's location.
Such transmission problems may not have been fully understood when the Federal Communications Commission rolled out its plan for switching to digital, a chief component of which is providing Americans with $40 coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes that make analog-era TV sets digital-ready.
"I don't think they were anticipated," said Michelle Vetterkind, president of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. Michael Bridgeman, communications director for WPT, agreed that "not all the nuances" of going digital were foreseen.
Wisconsin is tied for third in the percentage of households — 23 percent — that get their TV solely through a roof-top antenna or set-top "rabbit ears," Vetterkind said.
Today, those households can get their television through both digital and analog signals, but beginning Feb. 17, analog signals will cease.
Tim Henneman, of Cross Plains, said he's been through three converter boxes and tried two antennas over the last four months, but still experiences stations that come in and out, seemingly for no reason. "This stuff drives me crazy," he said.
Henneman said he doesn't want to get cable or a satellite dish — neither of which are affected by the switch — and is looking for answers about what to do next.
Digital signals provide clearer pictures but are susceptible to the same types of interference as analog signals, including hilly terrain and tall buildings. But unlike analog signals, digital signals that are weak or interfered with won't just produce a progressively poorer picture, the picture itself will freeze or disappear. Technicians call this the "cliff effect."
"With a digital signal, you've either got it or you don't," said Andy Gay, a maintenance engineer with WMTV.
A poor signal can also cut off the audio and cause the picture on the screen to freeze.
Bridgeman said WPT received 525 calls about digital TV in November and about the same in October. "That's a lot," he said, but he emphasized that not all the calls were about problems viewers were having with their reception. Some were for things like where to get a converter box, he said.
"Probably the biggest problem is that people are using set-top rabbit ears," said WKOW engineer John Corstvet, rather than larger, roof-based antennas. Others have reported problems getting a signal if they live in a more urban environment, like a Downtown apartment building, where there are a lot of structures to interfere with the signal.
Bridgeman said reception problems can be due to your location or the terrain where you live and in some cases "you may have to or choose to move up to an outdoor antenna."
Henneman said he spent $85 on a new antenna to try to get a better signal.
Antenna amplifiers can also boost the signal, as can rescanning the stations on the converter box — which acts as a tuner.
Some stations also have chosen not to broadcast their digital signals at full power, and that can effect the quality of the picture.
All stations will have to go to full power on Feb. 17, Vetterkind said.
DIGITAL TEST SET FOR WEDNESDAY
Six Madison-area television stations will broadcast an analog-only message from 7-7:30 p.m. Wednesday to remind viewers about the need to go digital.
Viewers able to see the message will be directed to a hot line staffed from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday by television officials who will be able to answer questions about the transition to digital TV, including how to get a digital conversion box.
Those already using a digital signal or who have cable or satellite service will not see the message.