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Published: Thursday, 6/18/2009

Switch to digital TV making reception impossible for some

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For months, Mike Wilkinson and his family of six have enjoyed digital television, including an improved picture and sound that made their 20-year-old TVs seem new again.

So when the Friday morning deadline of the analog-to-digital changeover approached, the 45-year-old Old Orchard resident wasn't worried.

"I had no fear. I had the [converter] box and nothing was going to change," Mr. Wilkinson said.

That's why he and hundreds, possibly even thousands, of others were surprised to discover reception of two local channels - WTOL-TV, Channel 11, and WTVG-TV, Channel 13 - missing.

Mr. Wilkinson tried everything he could to pick up the broadcasts of 11 and 13, including rescanning for the network affiliates' signals several times, and buying more expensive indoor antennas.

Nothing worked.

That's because the reception problems aren't with his antenna or converter box. They're not even with his TV.

The trouble, say chief engineers at WTOL-TV, Channel 11, and WTVG-TV, Channel 13, is with the stations' power levels.

Prior to the Friday digital transmission changeover, Channel 11 broadcast its analog VHF signal at 316,000 watts, and its digital UHF signal on channel 17 at 735,000 watts. Channel 13 broadcast at 316,000 watts for its VHF analog signal and 795,000 watts at its digital UHF channel 19.

Both stations were using the UHF channels as temporary placeholders for their digital signals, while the stations' analog signals occupied their home channels, 11 and 13. Once analog transmissions ended nationwide, WTOL and WTVG moved their digital signals to 11 and 13.

Because the FCC limits the strength of digital transmissions to prevent interference with neighboring stations, Channel 11's VHF digital signal is now 16,900 watts, and Channel 13's is 11,200 watts, which is up from the 3,500 watts the FCC originally granted. WNWO-TV, Channel 24, and WUPW-TV, Channel 36, are UHF stations, and did not have to downgrade their broadcast power.

The limited transmission power of WTOL and WTVG, coupled with the digital signal's biggest weakness - an inability to travel long distances, which is analog's strength - has made reception of the two stations impossible for some area viewers who rely on over-the-air antennas. Cable and satellite subscribers are not affected.

Buildings, aluminum siding, the lack of windows, trees, cars, trains, and even wind can all negatively affect reception of digital signals.

With analog, though, the broadcast had "the brute force" necessary to overcome those obstacles, said Barry Gries, chief engineer at WTVG.

"[But with digital,] there's no brute force today," Mr. Gries said.

Viewers who no longer receive the WTOL and WTVG broadcasts not only have lost local and network programming, but are also without the Emergency Alert System, which notifies residents when to take shelter in case of tornadoes, or alerts them to parts of the city are experiencing flooding.

But it's not just viewers who are suffering.

The loss of station reception has meant a decrease in viewership for Channels 11 and 13.

"We've lost a lot of viewers," said Steve Crum, WTOL chief engineer. "Especially for people in the further reaches, or basements or apartments with no windows - they need more power for the signals to penetrate the walls."

Meanwhile, those who bought digital-ready TVs and are using over-the-air antennas are returning to retail stores and asking what's wrong with their sets.

"They're very frustrated, but very patient up to his point. I don't how long that will last," said Kenny Wanemacher, warehouse manager at Appliance Center of Toledo Inc. "We had no idea what was going on. We called the [stations'] hot line and they told us, 'It's not you guys. We're still having broadcast issues.'•"

To address these concerns, Channel 13 will upgrade its signal in the next two to three weeks to 14,600 watts, an amplification that will provide a limited boost to the reception of some viewers.

Meanwhile, networks and affiliate owners nationwide are in discussions with the FCC about increasing the signal strength by as much as double that of current broadcasts, which would take Channel 11 and 13 each past 30,000 watts of transmission power.

"That would be the best scenario we can hope for," Mr. Gries said. "Will it fix everything? No. But it should make things better.

"All the VHF broadcasters across the country are suffering," he added. "All the viewers are suffering. We're all suffering."

Mr. Gries recommended viewers call the FCC DTV hotline, 1-888-225-5322, to voice concern over their loss of channel reception.

Until then, the solution for many area residents will require an additional expense: subscribe to cable or satellite, or install a rooftop antenna, a choice Mr. Wilkinson isn't happy with.

"It seems nonsensical that with the box [setup] I was fine, and after the deadline I have these stations that are no longer accessible on my TV," he said. "Nothing changed. I didn't move. The antennas didn't break. The only thing that changed was their power."

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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