Digital TV: Missed Signals
Having trouble with your digital TV reception? Join the club.
After I wrote this story about the challenges some TV watchers are having in getting a reliable digital signal, I received dozens of emails from readers claiming they were experiencing similar problems. The main issue has to do with what's called the "digital cliff"--the digital picture is excellent until interference or a weak signal causes the picture to disappear altogether. Analog picture, in contrast, gets more snow or static as the signal weakens, but generally comes through in some form.
But consumers may also need a stronger antenna, which will probably need to be pointed directly at a broadcaster's transmission tower, in order to pick up a signal. And if you live more than 40 miles away from a tower, you could have trouble getting a signal at all.
One of the senior editors here at The Post tried hooking up a converter box to his TV at his home in Loudoun County. Even with a rooftop antenna pointing toward the downtown Washington towers, he can't receive three of the major network channels, and a fourth "crinkles" every now and then.
We're lucky in the Washington area, because the majority of broadcasters send their signals from a cluster of towers in the Northwest corner of the city. So most of the over-the-air viewers can point their antennas in that direction. But in other cities, the towers are more spread out, which means some consumers will have to point their antennas in different directions to pick up the signal they want.
Frustrations are flaring across the country. Harry Saal, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., tried becoming an early adopter of the digital signals. While there are a lot of over-the-air digital stations in the Bay area, they broadcast from three different locations: some from San Francisco, some from East Bay and some from San Jose. He needed to get a directional antenna that could rotate between the stations. He also experienced disruption when planes took off and landed at nearby Palo Alto Airport.
"In order to to keep family harmony, my little 'experiment' didn't run very long," he said.
Melissa Dodworth of Boise, Idaho, wrote in an email that she has to adjust her rabbit-ear antenna every time she changes the channel.
"Feel like I'm back in the 50s, pre-remote, jumping up and down and going back and forth," she wrote.
Some readers, though, are finding better reception once they upgrade their antennas. Armen Gamble of Fairfax, Va., contacted us when she was frustrated that she couldn't get decent reception on the small TV she watches in her kitchen. She attached a different, more powerful antenna and got great results. "It's amazing," she said of the picture.
I visited a few people in their homes to make sure their reception problems weren't the result of human error in setting up the converter boxes. I visited Parker Nutall in Rockville, Md., and helped him hook a converter box up to the TV in his den. Luckily, it's wired to a rooftop antenna, so he got a great picture once we had the wires going to the right place. His second TV in the living room, however, relies on a set-top rabbit-ear antenna. Reception wasn't so great when we set the converter box up with that one.
Judging by the amount of feedback I've gotten from this story, it seems like a widespread issue--and one that's causing a lot of frustration from TV-loving folks. The transition to digital technology has been billed as a chance for the broadcasting industry to regain viewers who abandoned over-the-air broadcasters years ago for cable and satellite services. But glitchy reception could undermine those expectations.
There will certainly be more to say about this issue as we approach the Feb. 17 deadline. A GAO report found additional hurdles facing broadcasters as they prepare for the transition. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) has announced that he will hold a hearing on the matter June 10.
I'll keep you posted. So stay tuned to the blog, especially if it's just too annoying to tune into your television.
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