No Static: Digital TV Slow to Arrive in Flathead

By Beacon Staff

Less than two weeks before analog broadcasting was set to go dark, the federal government stepped in and gave television viewers who rely on antennas four months longer to get ready for the switch to digital TV. But in rural areas like the Flathead Valley, where only one local station is required to make the change, the upgrade will take even longer.

“When the change first takes place, people here won’t see any difference,” Steven Fite, president of the Blacktail TV district board, said. The district runs translators on Big Mountain and Blacktail Mountain and in Woods Bay, Polson and Big Arm that relay analog TV signals throughout the valley.

The national transition to digital TV has been years in the works. Broadcasters were scheduled to end analog broadcasts on Feb. 17, freeing up valuable digital space for wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon which have paid the government billions for more access. And for their part, broadcasters say they were ready to make the change.

“Several stations in Montana have already made the switch, and they’ve had very few problems,” Greg MacDonald, executive director of the Montana Broadcasters Association, said.

But despite an estimated $1 billion public information campaign, scores of American households – more than 6.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research – were unprepared less than a month before the transition was set to take place.

For the most part, only viewers with older sets that receive broadcast analog signals though antennas and do not get cable or satellite television, need to take action to prevent their screens from going dark when analog shuts down. Those households will need to upgrade to a pay TV service such as cable or satellite, buy a TV with a digital tuner or install a converter box on their older analog set.

A program established by Congress to defray the cost of converter boxes – it entitles each American household to two $40 vouchers, which covers most, if not all of the cost of the adaptors – ran out of coupons early last month, leaving millions on a waiting list.

So, last week, Congress passed legislation delaying the digital switch four months until June 12. Here in the Flathead Valley, and throughout much of Montana though, the conversion could take much longer.

“You have both full-power and low-power stations,” MacDonald said. “This bill never addressed low-power translators. They were never required to make the transition.”

Across Montana, analog television owners rely largely on these translators to bring them a television signal, because they are in remote locations or terrain that blocks a primary signal. There are 425 translators across the state, MacDonald said, and none of them will have to upgrade to digital.

In fact, in Northwest Montana, the only station legally required to convert to digital is KCFW NBC in Kalispell. Other regional primary stations like KSPS PBS in Spokane and KPAX CBS in Missoula will also be forced to make the upgrade, but because viewers here rely on translators to relay those stations, they would only receive a digital signal if the translator went digital.

And for most viewers that likely won’t happen for at least another year.

“I’m going to drag my feet a little bit and let other stations go through the transition first to give me time to figure out how to do it,” Fite, who’s TV district covers most of Flathead and Lake counties, said. “It’s going to take a lot of money to switch over.”

Property owners within the Blacktail TV District pay just $5 for the service. The cost to upgrade equipment to receive and translate digital signals is about $10,000 per translator, Fite said. In comparison, equipment to “down-convert” a digital signal back to analog is just about $1,000 dollars.

So as primary stations spend millions to convert their signals to digital, the translators, strapped for cash, will pay thousands to change them right back to analog and send that out to area viewers.

The one translator that’s an exception in this region will be the Swan Hill TV District, where board members have been working for years to prepare for the digital shift.

The upgrades have been costly, though. Since the district’s inception in 1961, each household has been taxed $5 a year. Last year, to help defray the costs of the upgrades, that rate jumped to $20 per household.

But the residents tucked below Swan Hill are already getting one digital station, and if district representative Bill Jaynes’ reaction is anything to judge by, others should look forward to their upgrade: “It’s absolutely stunning. I don’t watch much TV, but it’s just a glorious, beautiful picture.”

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