Digital Switchover Leaves Some Vermont Viewers in the Dark
Last month’s switchover to digital TV transmission appears to have gone smoothly for the vast majority of the estimated 14,000 Vermont households that used to rely solely on analog-type television sets.
Or did it?
Bodo Carey of Worcester had purchased the necessary converter boxes for his two analog sets, but some stations he once received have become a fuzzy jumble since the February 17 switchover. He can no longer watch Vermont Public Television, WCAX or WPTZ because local terrain blocks the digital signals.
Carey knows of at least one neighbor in the same predicament. And he wonders whether there may be many “silent Vermonters, a low-income rural minority” who have been rendered tubeless.
These erstwhile viewers aren’t just being deprived of soaps and sit-coms; they soon will be without access to televised weather advisories and emergency announcements. Analog transmission of news and public-affairs programs — a stop-gap measure for affected consumers — will end in mid-April.
Carey regards this impending cutoff as sadly ironic. He notes that advocates had argued for the switch to an all-digital TV format partly on the grounds that it would free up frequencies that could be used to facilitate communication among first responders and other public safety officials. But the conversion is about to leave some Vermonters without televised danger warnings.
The switchover was also sold as a major enhancement for former analog viewers. With digital, they can receive many more channels as well as a much clearer picture — that is, as long as they can still receive television signals. In implementing the move mandated by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission assigned ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels to both WCAX and WPTZ. This frequency performs less reliably in mountainous areas than does the very-high frequency (VHF) signal transmitted by the stations when they used the analog mode.
Comcast and other cable or satellite providers also stand to make more money as an indirect result of the move to digital. Owners of analog sets may not realize they can pick up the digital signal through the converter box and will instead feel compelled to connect by subscribing to Comcast or DirecTV.
Once the news shows conclude in the morning and evening, analog die-hards receive only infomercials about how to hook up converter boxes, along with color-coded maps showing where in Vermont reception might be sketchy or nonexistent even with the requisite box. These blurbs are aired in Spanish as well as in English — not because Vermont has some hidden minority of Latino Luddites, but because the content is being distributed nationally.
How many Vermonters are in this boat? Jim Condon, director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters, doesn’t know the exact number of affected households but believes “it isn’t that large.” Condon notes that blacked-out households with converter boxes affixed to analog sets can receive TV signals by installing new antennas or by paying for cable or satellite links.
Carey has been reluctant to take such steps, however, because of the expense each involves. “In an economic downturn,” he says, “people are being forced to spend money they didn’t have to spend before” solely in order to continue watching broadcast channels.
Alex Martin, vice president of operations for WCAX, notes that the stations themselves could remedy the problem by erecting “translators” in parts of the state where topographical features block reception from transmitters atop Mount Mansfield. But, Martin adds, the translators cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and would have to be situated atop hills or mountains, precipitating permit battles that would likely stretch out “for years, if not decades.”
WCAX and other over-the-air stations have already spent “millions of dollars” to implement a switchover to digital that “wasn’t our idea in the first place,” Martin says. “The federal government forced us to do it.”
The stations know they have lost some viewers as a result of the switchover. Ann Curran, community relations director for Vermont Public Television, says a call center she coordinated received 2600 complaints over a three-day period starting February 17. Vermonters seeking help might have reached Marselis Parsons or another of the local TV celebs who helped staff the call center.
The outcry will almost certainly grow in volume in mid-June when most major U.S. markets carry out their digital conversions. Burlington-Plattsburgh was one of about 50 TV markets out of roughly 300 that made the switch on the original February 17 deadline. “There was a low percentage of unready people in Vermont, based on research by the National Association of Broadcasters,” Curran says in explaining why Vermont went ahead on February 17 rather than waiting until the congressionally revised deadline of June 12.
Some Vermont households could currently be without TV reception not because of terrain issues but because they haven’t hooked up a digital converter. Condon says that as of early February, 1450 Vermont homes with analog-only sets had not received coupons they ordered from Washington that provide a $40 discount on a converter that retails for about $60.
“The system was poorly designed,” Condon says. “The government just ran out of the coupons they’d been advertising.”
A number of households awaiting coupons may have since paid full price for a converter or shelled out for cable or satellite service, Condon notes. He says he is not aware of any Vermonter who cannot receive digital TV because he or she lacks a converter box.
Condon isn’t aware of Ken Peck. The Charlotte resident simply hasn’t gotten around to buying a digital converter. And he’s in no hurry to catch up because he actually enjoys watching the infomercials in which an announcer cheerily proclaims, “Ahora, vamos convertir al edad digital!” Translation: “Now, we’re going to convert to the digital age!”