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Locals Unhappy With Digital-TV-Conversion Process

The value and/or cost of the digital-TV-transition deadline extension--from last month to June 12--will be hard to gauge, but it's safe to say the impact of the extension will be more costly for local television stations than it will be beneficial to viewers on the fringe.

Not only are local TV stations paying an estimated quarter-million dollars per month in unplanned expenses to keep their analog broadcasts going; the stations are attempting to improve upon the shaky digital-signal strength in so-called dark areas around Tucson for the relatively small percentage of people who don't have cable or satellite TV.

Furthermore, the government's converter-box concept has proven to be a bit annoying for many people who have opted to use them--thanks to both the absurdity of the confusing coupon-expiration plan, and the difficulties faced by some in actually getting the converter boxes to work.

David Bayardo is a studio technician at KGUN Channel 9. Lately, that position has required more than just his on-the-job duties; it has also come with the unforeseen duty of being the guy who has to help his friends and family members in the ways of boxes, adapters and connections: He's the technically savvy one, or that's what his friends like to say when they don't want to deal with the gadgetry.

But even for him, the converter box is a royal pain, and he doesn't like the way the government's ad campaign brushes over some of the potential difficulties--most notably, an irritating reset function that's inherent with the converter box.

"They tell people it's just like your old antenna, but the problem is the box scans the channels, so you have to scan the channel on the box to see if it goes in, and then rescan the whole thing again (if a channel is not picked up)," Bayardo said, proving that even explanations of the converter-box confusion can be confusing.

In other words: The converter box scans for channels; if a channel is not picked up, then you have to make antenna adjustments, and reset the converter box re-scan for channels, repeating the process as necessary.

"That's not as easy as just going to turn the knob on your TV-top antenna. People with rooftop antennas--what if they're not getting all the channels? What are they going to do? Go to the roof and check, and then go back up every time to see if they get the channels again?"

Bayardo and his friend, Rebeca Fuentes, continue to endure their share of antenna-maneuvering absurdities in an effort to make the upgrade. Fuentes, who lives near First Street and Euclid Avenue, in the shadow of two local television operations--KVOA Channel 4 and Belo-owned KMSB Channel 11 and KTTU Channel 18--has experienced dramatic changes in converter-box-antenna signal strength just by making minor, bizarre adjustments.

"The (converter-box antenna) in her living room is 8 feet from the one in her bedroom, and they don't get the same channels," said Bayardo. "The one in the living room, she has the antenna hanging upside down from a thumb tack, because that's the only way she gets the channels."

Even though the government and broadcasters have bombarded the public with digital-transition messages for much of the last year, the delay has seemingly done little more than put the topic on the backburner--that is, for the time being. It's probably safe to assume there will be a significant resurgence in attention at about the 60-day countdown point, but most industry insiders seem to feel that the same issues that occurred prior to February date--which led to the delay--will be in play as the apparently June 12 deadline looms.

Eventually, the transition will take place, and when that happens, Bayardo thinks that cable and satellite-TV companies will emerge as the real winners in this whole deal.

"I think they want to edge everybody onto cable or dish. They could need to free the bandwidth for other things that are necessary, but I bet when they went to Cox (Cable) and to Dish (satellite TV) and said they want to do this conversion--and, oh, by the way, it probably means a whole lot more viewers (on TV and satellite--they probably said, 'Yeah, we'll go for it,'" Bayardo said. "... In the end, I just see all of us having to go cable or dish."

KOLD Channel 13 general manager Jim Arnold has a slightly different take.

"I don't think it's a cable and satellite conspiracy," said Arnold. "It's two-fold: No. 1, with how pretty the digital pictures are, and how well the digital spectrum works, Congress thought, 'You know, if we force these licensees we have to go digital, we can auction off this space and make billions of dollars for the federal government.' I think that's the root cause of it. The beneficiaries may be cable and satellite, but I don't think that was the initial thought process. I think it was a congressional money grab."

According to a recent Nielsen report, an estimated 6 percent of households might have been affected had the Feb. 17 deadline went into effect. The report suggested that the number could dip to 4 percent in time for the almost-certain, really-this-time-we-mean-it new deadline on June 12.

Local stations have attempted to blanket the community with a variety of signal locations, as a way to overcome the pitfalls of the area's mountainous terrain. Those efforts will be put to the test in a few months for the small percentage of holdouts who reject the concept of paying for television.

"I don't have anything against the stations; they're the middle people. They want viewership," Bayardo said. "All the people are going to say is, 'Well, this thing's screwed anyway,' and they're going to go to cable, and with more channels, the local (stations) will lose more viewership."

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