THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Ten percent solution? Digi-signals stoke fears of imperfect pictures

"Television," says Bob Jenkins, Chief Engineer at Channel 29, the NBC affiliate here in town, "is imperfect."

He wasn't talking about the artistic content of shows, but about the quality of signals used to deliver those shows into our homes.

The government is requiring all television stations to transition from transmitting in analog signals to digital ones no later than February 17, 2009– just eight months from now. The reason is to free up the limited number of analog frequencies currently used by television broadcasting for emergency services, such as police and fire, as well as for wireless broadband services.

If, like most people in the Charlottesville area, television comes into your home via cable or a satellite dish, this change won't affect you much.

Even if you rely on broadcast signals, if you bought your television within the last few years, it likely has a built-in digital receiver already. And the digital signals will be picked up by your antenna, just as the current analog signals are.

If your television set is older, however, it may be capable of receiving only the old-style signals, in which case you will need purchase an analog-to-digital converter in order to receive the new digital ones. You may be eligible to receive up to two coupons from the government worth $40 each toward the purchase of these devices, which cost around $50 and up.

The Federal Communications Commission maintains a web site that will answer most questions you may have about this whole ball of wax at

According to the FCC, digital broadcasting provides many advantages to the viewer, including superior picture and digital sound.

But Larry Brown, who lives off Route 250 west of town, has had a different experience. Back in January, he switched to DirecTV, but was receiving broadcast signals via the antenna on his house for Channels 29 and 41 in our area. Now receiving those stations in digital, he was quite satisfied. The pictures, he wrote the Hook, "had never been better, and we looked forward to Channels 16, 19, and 27 [the area's ABC, CBS and FOX network affiliates, respectively] coming on line full strength so we could receive them as well."

But, Brown continued, "Just a few weeks ago the leaves on our tall trees came out full, and almost overnight the digital signals from Ch. 29 came in broken to the point of being unreadable. Ch. 41 digital still comes in fine."

Brown says his home is "just over 11 miles from all the local antenna."

Jenkins was surprised to hear about Brown's problem, given where he lives. He explains that the quality of the picture is determined by two factors: location and signal strength. "As a rule of thumb," he says, "if you got analog signals, you get digital signals."

Jenkins said that while leaves could affect digital signals, Channel 29's signal strength is much stronger than that of Channel 41, and he could not explain why Channel 29 would be affected at Brown's home while the weaker station would not. He speculated it could be an unusual bounce or reflection of the signals.

Channel 29 monitors its power output all times, Jenkins adds, which it is required to do by law; and the frequency on which it broadcasts, which is monitored by an outside company, deviates little, so he is confident in the integrity of his station's signals.

Roger Burchett, general manager of the Charlottesville Newsplex, which owns the CBS, ABC and Fox affiliates in town, did not return phone calls.

In any event, Brown warns, "The area around Charlottesville is likely to have some big surprises when the switchover is completed next February."

How big of a surprise remains to be seen. Jenkins says he is getting more calls these days about reception issues, but they still do not amount to significant numbers. Still, Brown's experience suggests that number might grow as we get closer to the February deadline and more households make the switch.

And while almost 90 percent of the 85,000 television households in the Charlottesville Designated Market Area get cable or satellite, according to non-profit trade group Television Bureau of Advertising, that means potential difficulties for 8,500 households in the region. While the odds are that the transition will be smooth for most, the fact that the Brown's signal problem stumped Jenkins could also be a signal that there will be more problems than Jenkins, or the FCC, anticipates. 

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.