Coming TV change has some tuning out

Gary Underwood and his brother Carl sound like they’re in the same league as pay-phone repairmen: In the era of cable and satellite TV systems, they install and fix antennas.

“In Nashua, in the ’70s, there must have been 10 companies that did this. Now I think we’re the only one left that does it full-time,” Gary Underwood said of the family’s business, New England Antenna Service, founded by his father in Manchester in 1949.

Indeed, as recently as a half-dozen years ago, when satellite broadcasts started carrying local channels and removed a main reason that people stayed with over-the-air TV signals, Underwood thought his company might go out of business.

Yet since 2006, he says, things have gotten better, thanks to digital television.

When broadcasters drop their analog signals Feb. 17 – led in New England by Derry-based MyTV, home of meteorologist Al Kaprielian that is making the plunge today – over-the-air TV will start looking better and, if broadcasters take advantage of bandwidth options, provide more channels.

As a result, Underwood says, rabbit ears are regaining a bit of ground from their nemesis, cable and satellite companies.

“We used to think that only the old people are going to keep antennas, but we’ve been getting people in their 20s, 30s, who just bought a house and put up an antenna,” he said. “They don’t want to pay the $50 a month” subscription fee.

This isn’t exactly a revolution, he admits. Underwood guesses that perhaps as few as 3 percent of households in the Nashua area depend solely on antennas for TV; in the total Boston-Manchester market, the estimated figure is 5 percent.

Still, he adds, “That’s a lot of people.”

‘Change is coming’

That’s a lot of people to be confused, perhaps.

“The government can do a lot of things, but you mess up people’s televisions and they’re going to be very upset. It’s going to be a real mess when it rolls out in the real world,” predicted Rep. Heather A. Wilson, R-N.M., during a telecommunications hearing in early November by the House Energy and Commerce.

“I see a lot of people that are just totally baffled,” Underwood said. “They don’t understand, they just know that some sort of change is coming.”

But he added that things have improved as the deadline has approached, partly because most TV stations are running infomercials explaining the switchover.

“Seven months ago, I was pulling my hair out, thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ . . . But the (stations) have gotten on the ball,” he said.

Easy transition for stations

Another reason not to worry is that the transition is irrelevant to cable and satellite TV. It only affects free, over-the-air signals.

For another, most stations have been broadcasting digitally for a year or more, sending the signal out on a second channel while the old analog broadcast occupied their home channel. MyTV is typical of this “dual-stream” mode.

“Two and a half, three years ago, we built a digital master control in anticipation of this down-convert to analog,” said Diane Sutter, chief executive officer of ShootingStar Broadcasting, which owns the station.

This is part of the reason the station decided to make the switch early: The transition will involve nothing more than turning off some redundant machines.

“We have a whole lot of equipment that will become boat anchors,” she joked.

The Federal Communications Commission likes to have some stations switch early as test sites. They even did a temporary switch in September in all of Wilmington, N.C.

“The FCC has been seeking stations in various markets throughout the country to, in essence, be the leader in this, to give the market an opportunity to test all their TVs, make sure they’re ready,” Sutter said.

“Since the day is going to come, if we can help get the market ready and get our viewers fully prepared for it, we’re glad to do it.”

As of today, MyTV’s analog channel will have text telling viewers about the switch. If you see this on your set, you aren’t ready for the digital transition.

“It’s a way for people to test,” Sutter said.

Broadcasters were given a second channel for the digital signal; after the transition, they’ll have to give one back. For technical reasons, MyTV will give up its longtime channel, No. 50, and keep No. 35. But don’t worry: Digital converters in set-top boxes or inside digital TVs will keep track of which channel it’s using and switch you automatically.

Similar to VCRs

Those set-top boxes, which will translate digital signals from your antenna into analog signals, are at the heart of worries about the transition. They’re needed for TV sets older than a couple of years – all new sets can read digital signals automatically.

Zack Neto, manager of the Radio Shack in the Nashua Mall, says sales of converter boxes have proceeded steadily over the months, with no sign of rush buying as the deadline approaches.

He says the machines aren’t too confusing, either.

“Even people 70 years old, 80 years old, they have connected a VCR,” he said. “If you tell them it’s like a VCR, they understand.”

The federal government offers $40 coupons to help buy the boxes, which cost a minimum of $50. The boxes are made by dozens of companies and sold at a myriad of retailers and outlets.

One thing that earlier tests have found is that some people lose secondary channels – those that came in poorly, with snow or ghosts, but which are still watchable. This is a function of digital signals, which have an “all-or-nothing” aspect, and the fact that the FCC is allowing digital transmission to occur at lower power than analog transmission.

Underwood is worried that this loss will be quite pronounced in the North Country, but says there even are spots in Nashua – such as pine-tree-filled locations near the airport – where channels might get dropped because signals are blocked by foliage.

He’s trying to get the FCC to require full-power digital signals, but says he’s having no luck.

Acquire box soon

Underwood has one piece of advice for people with older sets and antennas:

“Don’t wait until February 17 to do it,” he said. “At least get the (converter) box and have it ready, or you might lose all your TV.”

He also has one more piece of advice: Listen to your father. Or, at least, to his father.

“My father said radio and television changes every six months – and he was right,” Underwood said.