Niskayuna television station WRGB has faded to black for Dennis Ulery of Ballston Spa.
When the local CBS affiliate switched off its analog broadcast system last Friday — joining stations across the country that now transmit only digital programming — Ulery discovered he no longer receives shows and news from CBS 6.
“I’ve never been a cable subscriber, but I’m weighing the option now,” said Ulery, a former mechanical engineer at the General Electric Co. “I feel that Channel 6 has kind of let us down. Either I’m alone, or other people are experiencing the same thing.”
Ulery is not alone. Since television made the much-heralded switch from analog to digital-only broadcasts on June 12, hundreds of people who receive their news and entertainment through over-the-air systems have called local stations with gripes and questions. Some people have complained about zero reception.
“I can’t pick up a signal for anything,” said Ron Schaffer of Lake Pleasant, Hamilton County. “I know what it is — the digital signal doesn’t go as far as the analog did.”
Schaffer, a retired civil engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said television has ended for him.
“It cuts me out of TV programming,” he said. “You’d think the advertisers would be upset about this also. There’s a segment of viewers that aren’t getting their commercials.”
Fred Lass, director of engineering at WRGB, said his station has received more than 500 calls. He said the engineering staff has been able to help the majority of people.
Part of the problem is equipment. “We’re finding there are some brands of converter boxes that don’t work as well as they’re supposed to. They’re finding this across the country,” Lass said.
At Albany’s WTEN, engineers have also been asked about converter boxes. Mike Sechrist, general manager at News 10, has advised people to “re-scan” for digital channels.
“The [converter] box hunts for signals,” he said. “You run your antenna into the box and the cables from your box into the TV. When you turn it on, what it will do is — and a digital TV will do this by itself — it just looks for signals.”
A strong signal is marked and remembered. When the box has finished scanning, it presents the total number of channels it has found.
“Digital, unlike analog, does not come in poorly,” Sechrist said. “Either it comes in or it doesn’t come in at all.”
ANTENNAS AN ISSUE
Antennas have also been involved in questions, and answers. Some solutions that have worked for some people may not work for others.
“A lot of people have bought new high-definition antennas that may not necessarily work on Channel 6,” Lass said. “I can’t tell you how many people we’ve told to find their old antennas, connect them back up and then it works. The new antennas don’t work as well as the old antennas.”
Antennas might also have to be re-positioned.
“Part of the issue is letting them know that if they are missing us, it’s probably because their antennas are still pointing in the direction they used to point for Channel 13 when we were transmitting northeast of Troy,” said Rich Klein, director of engineering at WNYT, NewsChannel 13. “Since we’re now transmitting from southwest of Albany on the Helderberg escarpment, in some cases their antennas are not pointing properly.”
Distance and station power levels are other issues. Some people — like Schaffer — believe their homes are too far away from the greater Capital Region to receive digital signals.
“The bulk of our calls have been people who have been in the real fringe areas,” Sechrist said. “They’re 60, 70 miles out. Or there are geographical reasons. They’re in a valley, or there’s something in front of the home that’s blocking the signal.
“Somebody could be 40 miles away and be having all sorts of problems receiving us, and somebody could be 60 miles away and get us clear as a bell,” Sechrist added. “A lot of it is just the geography. Just because they were getting us on analog with an outdoor antenna didn’t mean they were going to get our digital signal. A lot of these analog antennas were made for analog, especially the older ones. They weren’t made for digital.”
Klein said his station may try to solve some reception problems with additional transmitters.
“I’m looking at adding some additional transmission stations up toward the northern area, toward the Saratoga-Glens Falls area where we traditionally had a better signal when we were broadcasting from Troy,” he said. “We’re also looking at ways to use our old analog site to re-transmit our programming from that site as well to help fill in those areas that traditionally have been able to receive us without any antennas, so they’ll be able to do that.”
FCC OK NEEDED
Work to add more booster stations and increasing station power levels will proceed only with approval from the Federal Communications Commission. Klein said he talked with a commission attorney this week, “And I got the impression that the FCC was going to be very flexible and helpful to broadcasters who may need to increase power somewhat and may also need additional transmitters.”
Schaffer has taken WRGB’s advice to solve his reception problem, but re-scanning and antenna-pointing have not worked. He’s more annoyed with politicians than he is with TV engineers.
“I think Congress sold us down the tubes,” Schaffer said, aware that a large portion of the radio spectrum formerly used for analog transmission can now be auctioned off by the government. “They listened to the lobbyists.”