San Diego was among the largest TV markets in the U.S. to have many of its major TV stations transition to digital only the evening of February 17. Major station groups backed out of their plans to transition early when it fell out of political favor. Locally, KFMB-DT needed to get off their low power provisional DTV channel. McGraw-Hill and Tribune surely wanted the electric meter to stop spinning so fast supporting two transmitters in an adverse economy at KGTV and KSWB, respectively.
The vast majority of the San Diego County estimated 78,000 households with over-the-air TVs made the transition without trouble. There were hundreds who needed help.
Speaking to dozens of viewers and other chief engineers in town, here’s what I learned:
Shutting Down the Analog Transmitters in Two Batches May Not Have Been Such a Bad Idea – Unprepared viewers woke up on February 18 with fewer TV stations, but they were able to receive some, and were motivated to then upgrade their systems to receive all the stations. No one was left without a source of TV news.
The “Night Light” Worked – KSWB reported fewer calls after keeping a repeating 30 minute instructional video about the DTV transition running on their analog channel 69 station for a week.
It’s About the Antenna – With at least four transmitter sites and rough terrain, it takes a skilled engineer to design and build a proper home antenna system in this market. The vast majority of callers were trying to receive all local English-speaking TV stations with a single indoor “rabbit ears and UHF loop” style antenna. With the few exceptions of people located in the center of the city in wood-framed homes using converters or receivers with the latest generation, highly equalization-adapting chipsets—receiving TV this way doesn’t work. A weak signal tolerated before became a blank screen at the bottom of the digital cliff.
A Few Brave Souls Want Information on Real Antenna Systems – A handful of callers wanted advanced information on fringe area reception. With only a couple of antennas capable of sufficient front-to-back ratios to eliminate co-channel interference from Los Angeles, this information means the difference between receiving all stations and receiving a few.
Not Ready for VHF – Many viewers had adapted to the UHF-only pre-transition market with their bow-tie array antennas, only to find that they now had to replace those antennas to receive new DTV stations on channels 8 and 10. Many viewers were told that the best system is a combination of high-band VHF antenna aimed permanently at Mt. Soledad and a UHF antenna aimed south toward Mt. San Miguel and Mt. San Antonio, but few wanted to actually go to the trouble of doing so.
Where Did the Converters Go? – Inventories of digital converters were spotty during the week leading up to the transition. Many stores appeared to have run out of converters for fear of having excess inventory. Anecdotal evidence told us that stores south of downtown fared worse, with large numbers of converters perhaps being sold to Mexican citizens for use in Tijuana, where many people are bilingual, they can receive large numbers of digital stations, and Asian imports carry a burdensome duty.
The Channel Master Converter Got Good Marks – The DigitalStream boxes got hot enough to make you not only wonder about their electrical consumption, but about their safety without a fire extinguisher nearby. The Zenith DTT900’s picked up an extra few stations from LA on my old log-periodic, but it didn’t have an S-video output. The Channel Master could be had at Fry’s sometimes for a 10-spot and a government card, but it had the S-video output. Andrew Lombard at KGTV said it was his favorite (although it doesn’t have analog passthrough).
Scan and Rescan, Then Scan Again – Viewers were told to rescan on February 18 for digital versions of channels 8 and 10. But that wasn’t enough. If a viewer had an antenna on a rotator, they had to perform a complete “first birthday” style scan to wipe channels 8 and 10 from their analog reception memory positions and record the Mt. Soledad stations. Then they had to scan in ADD mode for UHF stations on Mt. San Miguel. Then, depending on location, might have to scan a third time to receive English language XETV in Tijuana. Some TVs behave differently, so rescanning could delete previously found stations. Viewers with those TVs had to be instructed on how to restrict their scans to a set of physical channels while ADDing. Got that, Mom?
What Do You Mean Channel 6 is really 23? – Related to the previous item, viewers needed to know the physical channel numbers in order to properly scan channels and make sure they have the right antenna pointed in the right direction.
So Tell Me Once Again How to Wire My Old VCR to the Converter? – As consumers tried to adapt their older technology, they felt left behind when trying to integrate the new converters to their trusty recorders. Conducting automatic recordings with unmanned channel changes, we’ve learned, requires a Dish DTVPal or Zinwell ZAT-970A converter and careful reading of the manual.
I Give Up! – Cable, fiber, and satellite providers ran a heavy ad campaign to promote the simplicity and reliability of reception using their systems, capturing perhaps 6,000 exasperated OTA viewers. Many subscribed to the lowest tier of service, but providers were glad to have them.
Lifeline Rates are Not Published – Viewers calling TV stations were not aware that they could get all local TV stations, in HD, using the lowest tiered rates on cable.
Some Stations Really Put Out – KGTV collected excess government converter cards from their viewers and redistributed them to viewers who had requested too late. They also had instruction materials from each of the popular makes of converters and TVs in order to help people with rescanning. KFMB Stations Director of Engineering Rich Lochmann and yours truly at XETV went on the air to explain rescanning. KSWB produced the nightlight video.