Fate Of Rabbit-Ear TV Uncertain

December 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Like most local broadcasters, WGVU-TV is currently transmitting its programming in duplicate.

For those without cable, the PBS affiliate’s analog broadcasts can be seen on the UHF dial channel 35 in Grand Rapids and channel 52 in Kalamazoo. Meanwhile, its digital broadcasts can be seen in Grand Rapids on channel 11 and in Kalamazoo at channel 5.

“You might say this is kind of silly, that we’ve got two of the same thing on the air,” said WGVU general manager Michael Walenta. “But Congress said we have to. We’ve got to have them both on the air until they say otherwise.”

Nationwide, TV broadcasters have been saddled with the additional expense of transmitting both analog and digital signals as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are attempting to force the adoption of DTV without robbing the sizable portion of the country with “rabbit-ear” UHF television of their viewing privileges.

“It’s really a Catch-22 for stations,” said Lana Thompson of the Association of Public Television Stations. “If they continue to broadcast in analog, they’re spending extra money doing it. If they don’t, they lose their audience.”

To receive the DTV signal, viewers must purchase a new DTV receiver. Although most analog antennas will work for DTV reception, an antenna purchase could be required as well.

Alongside digital products for satellites, HDTV and cable, there has yet been virtually no market visibility for these receivers that may become a necessary purchase for much of the country in the coming year.

Prices are uncertain. Thompson estimates the devices at $99, while Classic Stereo and Video President Dan Johnson has heard $50 to $100. Incidentally, both prices are over what a consumer could pay for a used late-model TV.

“Analog TVs are virtually a dime a dozen these days, the value has really, really dropped,” Johnson said. “You can get a good 27-inch for well under $400. A couple of years ago I would have said $600 or $700.”

A comparable digital TV can be found for no less than $550, Johnson said.

The day may soon come when U.S. residents relying on broadcast television will have to face those uncertain prices and make some unwanted purchases.

Congress has mandated that all stations continue broadcasting both signals until the target date of Dec. 31, 2006, when stations are slated to give their analog bandwidths back to the FCC for other uses.

That date may be extended, however, in areas where 85 percent of homes are not able to watch DTV programming. Stations in areas that have already reached that penetration may petition to cease analog broadcasting early. The language of the transition plan is vague as to whether that number is to include cable subscribers, as some communities boast cable and satellite penetration of as much as 98 percent, according to Thompson.

“That date is a big question mark,” Johnson said. “This thing could get pushed really far back. Congress isn’t going to tell our grandmas they can’t watch TV anymore.”

This past July, Congress told manufacturers that all TVs larger than 36 inches must be digital and HDTV-ready. In July 2006, at least 50 percent of TVs sold must be digital and HDTV-ready out of the box.    

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