When digital signals take over the airwaves later this year, some viewers who aren't cable subscribers will be left staring at a blank screen -- the little-known downside of converting to a more technologically advanced yet weaker broadcasting system.
Contrary to messages geared to over-the-air viewers, successfully moving into the digital age by the government's June deadline might require more than a converter box. It could require a more powerful antenna -- and that still might not be enough.
Even with a sensitive antenna, some viewers without cable subscriptions -- people in the northern part of Snohomish County for instance, or those who just live on the wrong side of a hill -- might lose their favorite channels.
Digital signals are weaker than analog signals and have a tougher time penetrating terrain and buildings. That means network stations such as KOMO, KING and KIRO will be broadcasting to smaller circles of over-the-air viewers after the digital switch.
The problem is largely lost in the information cloud surrounding the already-delayed transition, but it's no secret to some over-the-air viewers who have already bought and hooked up their converter boxes.
Lynnwood resident Jeannette Reed caught on to the downside of digital TV months ago, when she tried to watch digital TV with her box and got a blank screen where there used to be a fuzzy picture.
She was hoping reception would improve as the June 19 deadline for digital broadcasting draws nearer. But now, Reed thinks she might end up spending more time listening to her radio.
"I really don't know what I'll do," she said. "I really thought that maybe there would be some miracle."
An analysis of Federal Communications Commission data shows Snohomish County viewers likely won't be affected as severely as viewers in Thurston and Skagit counties. There, weaker signals from stations such as KIRO, KING and KOMO probably won't reach large spans of households near Mount Vernon and Olympia anymore.
Though FCC maps don't clearly show many coverage lapses in the southern part of Snohomish County, anecdotal evidence suggests there will be widespread reception problems much closer to Seattle.
Jim Covey, who watches TV over the air at his home near the Skykomish River, hooked a digital converter up to his TV, but he can't pick up any channel except 13. When he called an FCC hotline for advice, he was told to raise his outdoor antenna.
"They said, 'Put your antenna over 200 feet,'" recalled Covey, who is almost 80 years old. "I said, 'Over the top of the tree? You've got to be kidding.'"
There's a simple reason for coverage lapses closer to Seattle, where most network stations have their broadcast towers: The Puget Sound region's geography makes transmitting tough.
Because of a frequency change, digital signals can't penetrate hills, buildings and other obstacles as well as analog signals. So in a region crumpled and creased with hills and valleys, digital signals can't travel far.
"We are what's known in some circles as 'terrain challenged,'" said Willie McClarron, manager of broadcast operations for KING 5 Television in Seattle. The station will likely lose about 2 percent of its viewers in the transition, and McClarron said there isn't anything he can do to fix that.
Most major network stations in the Puget Sound region broadcast from hilltops in Seattle, which reach elevations of about 450 feet.
KCPQ broadcasts from Kitsap County's Gold Mountain, which stands at about 1,700 feet. That station expects to add coverage in some areas, including some parts of northwest Snohomish County.
"If people have a good line of sight from their antennas to our antennas, they should get a good signal," said Jay Zacharias, assistant chief engineer for KCPQ.
Though local terrain complicates matters -- not to mention an agreement with Canada that prohibits aggressively transmitting signals -- digital TV reception is likely to be an issue in most parts of the country. Earlier this year, market-research agency Centris estimated 8.5 million people across the U.S. live in "reception challenged" areas.
Still, digital converter boxes are disappearing from store shelves, and subsidy coupons used to purchase the devices are getting harder to come by.
Converter boxes used to be stacked waist-high at the Marysville Best Buy. Last week, just a few of the cheapest boxes were left -- each going for $54.99.
A sales clerk said he's getting "tons" of questions about the box -- how to hook it up, where to get a government-subsidy coupon and whether TV reception will improve.
The correct answer to the last question? "Don't count on it."
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