Contrary to the expectations of Congress and the FCC, the first phase of the DTV transition took place without major incident. Some 23% of American TV stations stopped sending out analog signals Tuesday at midnight, and only 28,000 calls came into the centers the FCC and the cable and satellite providers have established for transition help. The biggest category of call, close to half of all calls, was from people unable to pick up the digital broadcasts at all, or picking them up with very poor quality. A significant number didn’t know how to setup their converter boxes, or didn’t realize that the converter boxes have to scan for channels.
These numbers support a suspicion I’ve had for a while now, that the emphasis on converter boxes is misplaced. The problem that most people are going to have is a complete inability to receive digital broadcasts at all, because they don’t have the right kind of antenna, the antenna isn’t oriented properly, or because they live in the wrong place. Many stations are moving transmitter locations to alter service areas, and won’t be serving some traditional customers any more. Others are reducing power, sometimes quite substantially. Digital broadcasts are more robust, so some reduction in power is quite sensible. But I suspect that over-the-air delivery of TV is such a small percentage of the overall market – well below 20%, and in some areas less than 10% – that it doesn’t make financial sense for stations to invest heavily in high power transmitters.
The timing of the transition was very bad for this reason. A substantial number of OTA TV viewers are doing to need upgrades to roof-mounted antennas, and in many cases they’re going to need multiple antennas pointing in different directions. Getting up on a roof in February is not a pleasant experience in much of America, so a May or June transition date would have been much more sensible. In any event, it’s a good time to buy stock in antenna companies.
I’ve been doing some experiments with roof-mounted antennas that I’ll be reporting on shortly. So far, I can only get 5 stations where I live, and four broadcast in Spanish. Perhaps the FCC needs a budget for bilingual education as well as for converter boxes and antennas.