Monday, June 22, 2009

The VHF DTV Struggle

Here we are, now over a week out from the June 12th digital TV transition, and stations which "transitioned" to a VHF frequency for their permanent digital channels are still getting a lot of flack.

Broadcasting & Cable has a pretty decent summary of the problems in an article on the trade website today:

Some of the problems with VHF reception are simply due to consumers not having the correct antenna; many antennas marketed as “HDTV-ready” are UHF-only. And the double-rescan procedure recommended last week by the FCC has solved the issue for some viewers in New York and Chicago.

But in many cases, the reception problems are more severe in close proximity to the transmitter than farther away. That suggests the problem is less one of signal coverage than of signal penetration into urban dwellings such as apartment buildings, where many viewers rely on simple indoor antennas.

That would mirror what we've heard here in Northeast Ohio.

Some of the loudest complaints about reception on WJW's new digital channel 8 facility are coming from inner ring Cleveland and Akron suburbs, like Shaker Heights and University Heights, or like our own location somewhere in northern or western Summit County.

In all three locations, WJW's UHF 31 pre-transition facility pegged the signal meter on digital tuners or converter boxes.

Here at OMW World Headquarters, a tiny wire hooked to our Zenith converter box could pick up WJW before the, we've had to assume the "Fox Viewing Position" made famous on the network's early iconic sitcom "Married...with Children". (And at that time, WJW wasn't a Fox affiliate!)

Again, like most viewers within 15-20 miles of the Parma antenna farm, we do not have a rooftop or attic antenna.

For the record, we THINK we've found an indoor antenna placement here that has brought us the strongest possible WJW signal, with few or no dropouts. But we're not altogether sure that'll hold up under different atmospheric conditions.

On the other hand, this article by Cleveland Plain Dealer business writer Shaheen Samavati last week - which talks about the difficulties receiving WJW and Raycom Media CBS affiliate WOIO/19 digitally - had an interesting note:

Ben Rzepka of University Heights uses a high-powered rooftop antenna that pulls in all Cleveland market stations perfectly - except WOIO. He says he watches programs on the Toledo CBS affiliate, WTOL Channel 11, instead.

"It can't be my system or my antenna," he said. "If I'm getting Toledo stations, it's got to be WOIO that has some kind of problem."

Two oddities in that section of the article.

First, WTOL itself is a VHF digital allocation on its former analog channel, 11. Different band and atmospheric conditions have been bringing in stations as far away as Detroit for Northeast Ohio digital TV viewers.

We know one OMW reader in northern Summit County who says his digital tuner gets at least a brief scan of Detroit CBS O&O WWJ/62 (if not a watchable picture), but that the same tuner can't get WOIO's signal - even though he can actually see tower lights from the Parma antenna farm across the Cuyahoga Valley.

But the University Heights man (with a rooftop antenna!) quoted above stumbles on the other side of the VHF DTV phenomenon...while people relatively close to the transmitter in urban areas are struggling with those stations, the "carrying power" of VHF can the stations' signals far beyond the market, in the right conditions.

It reminds us of the problem Akron market Clear Channel hot AC WKDD/98.1 had when it first camped out on that frequency in the "Great Frequency Swap of 2001"...98.1 was touted as a powerful signal, but it couldn't penetrate buildings in the core of downtown Akron.

Our friends in the TV engineering community will rail against indoor antennas.

But in core urban areas, putting up a rooftop antenna is just not a viable option...for viewers who don't have such problems with higher-powered UHF installations like, oh, say, the new RF 17 allocation for WKYC/3. Or WJW's own pre-transition RF 31.

Why should someone in a core suburb have to put up an outdoor antenna (and pay for it, to boot) when only two stations are a problem without one? If you're going to pay for something to watch TV, why not a cable or satellite subscription?

And as such, we are cautious about over-stating this.

If these figures from the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) are correct, the Cleveland/Akron (Canton) TV market enjoys 90% cable and satellite penetration as of this past February. ("ADS" in the chart would basically be satellite, or other non-cable distribution methods.)

That means all but 10% of this TV market's viewers are blissfully unaware of the difficulty picking up the market's two VHF DTV outlets, WJW and WOIO. And of that 10%, there are thousands who do NOT have problems with the local Fox and CBS affiliates' new digital signals.

For those with problems with the VHF side of digital TV, what's next?

Let's bring in our long-time friend, colleague and World Champion Tower Hunter Scott Fybush, from this week's edition of NorthEast Radio Watch:

In the long run, though, it appears the FCC may be right back where it was in, say, 1950: coming to terms with the reality that the state of the art in receiver and antenna design probably requires significantly more power than was originally thought necessary.

That, too, may be an expensive solution for some stations that had already built what were to be their "permanent" VHF digital facilities - though the good news is that most of the stations moving back to their VHF analog allocations have plenty of headroom in their antennas and transmission systems for more power, and often have extra transmitter power to spare, too, if they've converted recent analog transmitters to digital use.

That would certainly appear to apply to WJW, locally.

In fact, if the FCC filings the local Fox affiliate have made are to be believed (or are being read properly), the station is in the process of doing just that: converting its former analog transmitter to digital.

WJW's analog allocation had the station putting out an ERP of 236 kW. We haven't heard any progress on the supposed conversion, if it's taking place, but we'll guess that WJW will build it out at 30 kW and see what happens from there.

WOIO? We've given up on them. The 10.3 kW that the local CBS affiliate is trying to rangle out of its FCC application - reportedly tied up with Canadian coordination with London ON co-channel analog CFPL/10 - is probably not going to help the station very much. And as WOIO's Jim Stunek has told the Plain Dealer's Shaheen Samavati, it's a "time-consuming process".

If you want to watch "19 Action News", and can't see it on your digital OTA tuner, call Time Warner Cable, WOW Cable, Cox Cable or your local cable company, or DirecTV or Dish Network.

Meanwhile, in Toledo, we hear that ABC O&O WTVG/13 is openly talking about the station's own problems with its 11.2 kW allocation on RF 13.

An OMW reader tells us that "13abc" discussed the problem, with the help of several engineers, on the Sunday public affairs program "Conklin and Company". That's no surprise, since ABC itself has been the loudest voice reacting to this whole mess.

We're told that it was learned that WTVG is waiting for an FCC engineer to study the new signal, before trying to get a power increase.

And we hear that WTVG's chief engineer said what Scott Fybush also said in his NorthEast Radio Watch, which we quoted above: that "they took us back to the 1950's power levels where people HAD to have an outdoor antenna"...


  1. Well, down here, WCPO-TV and WKRC-TV both are currently struggling to broadcast. WCPO is of course still working on switching antennas around, and so if there are any residual problems, those will be found after the new digital antenna is lit up.

    As for WKRC, I spoke with Chief Engineer Kurt Thelen from there, and his thinking is that they may need to up their power...but with some antennas actually cutting off half the VHF band (usually 6+), any move to do that would only help those who aren't getting WKRC but don't have issues with their antennas/converters.

    Food for thought on this Monday night.

    ~Jeremy Moses

  2. WJW's sister station, WGHP in Greensboro, also moved from UHF to VHF but now has the UHF signal back on the air, at least temporarily. They want to try to boost power, something that's likely not an option for WJW since they'd have to coordinate any increase with the Canadians. Any idea if WJW might consider lighting up DT-31 again?

    Also, I hear that there are no plans to build the 30 kW CP--it exists only to protect the station from encroachment of other stations.

    WOIO is in a really sticky spot. They can't go back to 19 because the allotment no longer exists. Assuming WJW was to move back to 31, no fully-spaced allotments exist in Cleveland except for the 39 allotment which is being abandoned by WDLI for 49. Another possibility is that they could try to shoehorn in a 27 allotment if they were directional away from Canada (much like the WKYC-17 allotment), but that would require a bunch of extra paperwork.

    I can't imagine Raycom sticking with 10 for WOIO in the long run. The signal's DOA and especially if Mobile DTV starts doing something useful, that signal will be utterly useless, even at 10 kW. I wish they would give it up already and make motions toward UHF in one way or another.

    A number of stations are already fleeing VHF (KMBC already fled before the transition, add in WLOX, KWCH, WVUE). Will Cleveland be lucky enough to have both of its local VHF stations join them?

    - Trip

  3. I don't buy this "It's your antenna" crap. While I realize they were selling UHF only antennas as "digital", most of the VHF DTV is too weak and interference prone compared to their UHF counterparts. WJW is a perfect example of how well the UHF works compared to an anemic VHF.

  4. WLOX is owned by Raycom Media, so maybe there is still hope of WOIO eventually abandoning VHF. Just one question though. Why was the channel 19 allotment elmiminated? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. 19 would be a good channel to go back to. 19 WPCW in the Pittsburgh market has gone to RF-11. WPCW had a pre-transition signal on RF-49 which they may very well light up again considering the current trend.

  5. Sorry, I lied, WPCW never actually lit up their pre-transition channel 49. They might also be stuck if the 19 allocation has also been eliminated in the Pittsburgh market.

  6. The channel 19 allotment was deleted so that a new channel 19 allotment could be placed in London, Ontario. As I understand, this station is already on the air, and knowing the Canadians, trying to reestablish the channel 19 allotment in Cleveland would result in some extremely low power level that would be little improvement over what WOIO has now.

    - Trip

  7. I live in the city of Cleveland, very close to the zoo. Channels 8 and 19 came in very well prior to June 12. Now, they're unwatchable. My wife is ready to dump the television altogether. She was ready to go out and buy a new TV with a built-in digital tuner until I told her that it wouldn't make any difference with the reception of those channels.

    I also don't buy the crap that "it's the anntenna". It's VHF, with a weak signal. I'll admit I don't have the greatest antenna in the world (it's an indoor antenna, rabbit ears for VHF, bowtie for UHF), but I can pick up every other station with flying colors, just not 8 and 19.

    And I'm not about to go out and buy an outdoor antenna to pick up stations whose towers are 5 1/2 MILES AWAY FROM MY HOUSE as the crow flies.

  8. "Some of the problems with VHF reception are simply due to consumers not having the correct antenna; many antennas marketed as “HDTV-ready” are UHF-only." -well then there we go, why are they mis-labeling them then?


  9. Can anyone tell me why VHF is so much harder to 'pickup' than UHF??? I don't understand why 200 megahertz is tougher to get than 400 megahertz. Is it a combo of frequency and the alloted power? Thanks,,,,,,,,,,,,,,


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