Most Madison stations will switch to digital-only broadcast signals today

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Posted by on February 17, 2009 at 11:39:50:

Most Madison stations will switch to digital-only broadcast signals today

by Chris Rickert | WSJ

If you heard something about Congress delaying the date for television stations to switch to digital-only broadcast signals, beware: Most stations in the Madison area are taking advantage of a clause in the new bill that allows them to stick to the old deadline.

That day is today, Tuesday, in other words, for those of you who, despite nearly 10 years of buildup, remain unprepared for the end of analog-signal TV.

For reasons including the cost of continuing to maintain an analog signal and the relatively small number of Madison households still digitally behind the times, four of the Madison market's six full-power stations have decided not to take advantage of the extra four months Congress gave them and the American public to prepare for the switch.

The following digital TV Q&A is aimed at the procrastinators, technophobes and others for whom TV is just not that high of a priority. You have very little time to leap into the 21st century, TV-wise.

Q: What is the digital TV (DTV) transition?

A: It's when all full-power television stations in the continental United States switch to digital broadcasting only. For several years, stations have been broadcasting using both digital and analog signals.

Q: When does it happen?

A: For WMTV (Ch.15), it happened at 11:59 p.m. Monday. WISC (Ch. 3) and WKOW (27) plan to go at noon and 1 p.m., respectively, today. WBUW (Ch. 57) will switch over some time today. WMSN (Ch. 47), the Madison FOX affiliate, has decided to keep its analog signal until June 12. WHA (Ch. 21), public television in Madison, whose mission is to provide "universal access" to its programming, will make the switch some time after March, but probably before the new June 12 switch-over date, according to its Director of Television James Steinbach. WISC and WKOW will continue to provide emergency broadcasts, news and weather on their analog signals for the next 60 days as part of an "enhanced night light" service required by the FCC, according to FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield.

Q: Why are the stations switching at different times?

A: WMTV applied for an early switchover day under a process separate to one that came into existence with the recently enacted Delay TV Act, and thus ceased all analog service before today. WMSN has opted to continue its analog until June 12, the new switch date under the act, but the other three took advantage of a section of the act that allows them to still switch on Tuesday as long as they met certain conditions set out by the FCC.

Q: Why is it happening?

A: Digital signals provide clearer pictures and sound than the older analog technology. The technology also allows for multicasting basically offering different programming on subchannels of the main channel. Also, public safety organizations like fire and police departments, as well as telecommunications companies, plan to use the broadcast spectrum now being taken up by analog TV signals.

Q: Who is affected?

A: Those who watch TV on an older set that is hooked up to an antenna but not to a digital converter box. A Feb. 1 estimate by the Nielsen Co. found there were about 5.8 million households, or 5.1 percent of homes, in this group. According to officials with WISC and WKOW, only about 1 percent of Madison-area households or about 4,000 remain unprepared for the switch. Steinbach said that as of mid January about 37,000 Wisconsinites were on the waiting list for a government coupon that offsets the cost of the equipment needed to convert an analog TV to a digital one, including 4,700 in Madison-area Rep. Tammy Baldwin's district.

Q: Who isn't affected?

A: People with cable or satellite service or phone TV service. People with newer TVs outfitted with digital turners (marked as an "ATSC" tuner on the television's specifications). People who have purchased converter boxes and hooked them up to their TVs.

Q: If I turn on the TV today and my screen is blank, what can I do?

A: Buy a converter box. They run between $50 and $70, but a $40 government coupon will take care of most of that if you can still get one. The federal government has officially run out of money for the program, Congress has authorized more; the bill awaits the President's signature.

Q: What about game systems, DVD players, VCRs and other television-based entertainment devices?

A: The only thing you need to worry about are older devices that have analog tuners, typically VCRs. If you plan to watch one show on your TV and record another simultaneously on your VCR, you will need an additional converter box hooked up to the VCR.

Q: What if I'm still not getting anything on my TV?

A: Assuming the converter box is hooked up correctly (see sidebar), you may be a victim of the digital "cliff effect." The strength of analog signals deteriorate meaning the picture on your screen begins to get less clear the farther away you are from the TV station transmitter. Hills or other topographical features also can interfere.

Digital signals are different in that you either get them or you don't. As long as the signal is strong enough, you get a high-quality picture. Once it weakens past a certain point, however, it falls off the cliff, i.e., the screen goes blank. Sometimes the cliff effect can be alleviated with a better, typically roof-mounted, antenna. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and pay for cable or satellite service.

For more information: includes information on choosing an antenna, converter box details, videos, and more. hosted by the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition; consumer guide to DTV transition available for download. offers an online quiz to find out if you are ready for the DTV transition; includes a list of online DTV resources. hosted by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

On setting up a converter box with a VCR:

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