Mike Jacobson doesn’t watch much television, but he has heard about the upcoming switch that will dump his TV’s old analog signals for the more modern digital signals.
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard about it,” he said. “It’s on there every time you turn the television on.”
The 88-year-old, who lives alone in a Coeur d’Alene apartment complex, doesn’t spend much time in front of his TV, except to watch the nightly news on one of the five broadcast channels he receives through a roof-mounted antenna.
Yet, Jacobson, like the majority of American households with a TV, has been bombarded by the public-service messages emphasizing the switchover – as most Spokane-area broadcasters still plan on meeting the original Feb. 17 deadline – no matter where he goes. The scrolling text across the top of the television screen, handouts at the Lake City Senior Center and radio ads played on the airwaves throughout the day are just a few examples.
And, unlike millions of homes unprepared for the change – more than 6.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research – Jacobson will be ready to watch over-the-air broadcasts with the digital-to-analog converter box that his son will soon install, though he’s been granted a wider window of opportunity before the scheduled transition to the digital signals takes place, which was delayed by Congress recently from mid-February to June 12. The millions of convertor-box holdouts, as well as the more than three million people placed on a national waiting list for the $40 coupons for the devices, played a major role in the government’s decision to postpone the transition for four months.
“He’s good at electronics,” Jacobson said about his son, though, he continued, “I probably won’t watch any more television than I do now.”
As the roughly 1,500 full-power broadcasting stations across the country prepare to go to all digital signals, as mandated by the 2005 DTV Transition and Public Safety Act, local TV stations are making a push to get the public fully onboard – or at least aware of the change in case someone hasn’t tuned in to a station in the last few months.
“Now we are at the end of the analog world,” said Bob Wyatt, director of engineering for Spokane-based KSPS Public Television. About the switch, he said, “The most recent figures indicate that 95 percent of the public is aware that this is happening.”
Despite the decision to delay to the all-digital format, a handful of the six major Spokane broadcasters will still shut down their analog transmitters on or around Feb. 17, including KXLY, KAYU-TV Fox, KSPS and KHQ. Most of the full-power Inland Northwest stations made the digital switch several years ago, with some starting as early as 2001 and spending more than $1 million in the process.
Even as those stations make the digital switch in the coming week, that doesn’t mean North Idaho viewers, many of which still don’t receive all their old analog channels in digital format, will stop picking up the old airwaves. Many of the local affiliated translators, which are typically small-scale setups on a nearby mountain that operate on shoe-string budgets with some federal funding, have yet to make the costly conversion – the affiliates were exempt from the federal DTV ruling. Each full-power station can have as many as 50 affiliates scattered across the Northwest, from Wenatchee, to Enterprise, Ore., to Troy, Mont.
As for the North Idaho affiliates, which dot a handful of mountain-top sites across the panhandle, their role is to carry the full-power stations’ signals into living rooms otherwise limited in picking up over-the-air broadcasting by distance, or blocked by some geographical barrier. In Coeur d’Alene, for example, where many downtown residents are blocked to the Spokane-based broadcasts by mountains, the translators are located west of town on Canfield Butte.
“They are low-power translators made to fill in certain areas. The only reason they are up there is to fill in those areas,” Wyatt said of the half-a-dozen translator setups straddling the top of the butte.
Because several of those affiliates have yet to make the digital upgrade – and probably won’t in time for a June deadline – that means many TV watchers in the area will continue to receive an analog signal for several more months. Put another way: your TV won’t go dark.
“Nothing that you have now is going to go away as long as you have a converter box,” Wyatt said, adding that the TV audience might have to switch between the analog and digital channels to continue to pick up all their current stations.
For the small-scale translators, rather than buying and installing some of the equipment necessary to relay the full-power broadcasters’ digital signals in digital format, which can cost as much as $10,000 per channel, many have opted for a device that simply converts it into the old analog signal they then rebroadcast throughout the affected area. That’s the case in several North Idaho counties, where limited winter access to the transmitter sites, high conversion costs and limited equipment availability have delayed the digital upgrade for some affiliates, with a few pushing it back until the warmer months.
Paul Caryl, director of engineering for KHQ, said the station is still aiming for the February target date. “We are hoping to get it converted to a digital translator before, or on the 17th,” he said, adding that KHQ will continue to operate on an analog channel until then. “As soon as we make the conversion to digital, we’ll shut down the analog signal … . Either way, they won’t go dark.”
In the Lake City, a natural divide occurs along the Interstate, with households on the south side in the shadow of some of the Spokane stations’ digital broadcasts. “I always look at Coeur d’Alene as: If you live north of Interstate 90, you are going to be fine. But, if you live south of I-90, you may be in trouble,” KSPS Public Television’s Wyatt offered, explaining why some homes don’t receive all the digital offerings.
Farther north in Boundary County, the handful of translators are setting their sites on this summer.
“We are already receiving the digital signals and then knocking it down to analog,” said Michael Listman, chairman of the Boundary County Translator District, which controls five of the seven broadcasting translators on top of Black Mountain near Bonners Ferry. “This summer we plan on rolling all the channels to digital.”
In the meantime, viewers will continue to receive the analog stations. As for a word of advice for North Idaho viewers, all the broadcasting engineers offered this: Be prepared for the inevitable full-scale digital switch now, either by purchasing a converter box, a digital TV, or by connecting to a pay TV provider.
There are several benefits to broadcasting digital signals, such as a clearer picture and offering more content streams for broadcasters, known as “multicasting,” which in turn gives the public more programming options.
“In the digital world, a station can broadcast up to four program streams within the main channel,” said Wyatt.
Even with those advantages, watching any more TV is a tough sell for the World War II veteran who spent a good chunk of his life in the wilderness.
“I don’t watch much television; I don’t really care for it. I worked in the woods for more than 30 years, so I never was around it much,” laughed Jacobson, talking briefly in between turns in a cribbage game with three others at the Lake City Senior Center. Later, he laughed, “I’m my own boss, and I do what I want to do, and television isn’t one of those things.”