Forum aims for clear signal on TV switch

NASHUA – It sounds simple, but that doesn’t mean it is.

The transition by television stations to digital broadcasts brought up many questions at a town hall forum held Monday at Nashua High School North.

About 70 people came to the forum, which was sponsored by New Hampshire Public Television, WMUR and Comcast. Many of those attending wanted to know how the change will affect them and what they need to do to continue watching local stations.

“I was here to find out if someone knew if I’ll be better off after Feb. 17 or not,” said Merrimack resident Dan Memos.

That’s the date broadcast channels such as WMUR and New Hampshire Public Television will shut off their old-fashioned analog signals and begin broadcasting in digital as required by government standards.

Emergency personnel will use some of the old analog bandwidth and some of it has been sold off, according to WMUR General Manager Jeff Bartlett.

The new digital signals offer a better picture and sound but not everyone can receive them.

People who use rabbit ears or rooftop antennas and have TVs older than a few years need to buy a converter box so their sets can interpret the new signal. The boxes cost $40-$80 and government coupons are available for up to $40, Bartlett said.

Cable and satellite subscribers, or antenna users with new televisions with a converter box built in, don’t need to make any changes.

That leaves a lot of room for questions for many people. Several cable subscribers attended only to learn they don’t need to buy any equipment or make any changes.

“This is why we’re doing these events,” said Comcast spokesperson Marc Goodman. “To educate consumers about their options.”

Goodman said Comcast has been working on the changeover for more than a year, and the cable industry, as a whole, has spent more than $200 million on public service advertisements.

Nashua Mayor Donnalee Lozeau opened the forum and likened the change to the evolution from vinyl records to eight-tracks to cassette tapes and CDs.

“I think that change is difficult for all of us,” she said. “Tonight is all about being ready for change.”

But as Dan Memos and his wife, Anita, pointed out, the federal government didn’t mandate those changes.

“This is being forced on us. But what does it do for the consumer?” Dan Memos asked.

“It’s frustrating,” Anita Memos said. “I don’t want to take a (cable bill) on. We’ll just stop watching TV.”

Hollis resident Ellen Matton predicted mailboxes in Washington would start to fill up quickly after the change is made next month.

“Come February, the senators are going to hear from so many people in this country,” she said. “They think they’re doing a wonderful thing for us, but they’re really taking our way of knowing what’s going on and messing it up royally.”

Monday’s forum was supposed to be held last month but was postponed because of the ice storm. It’s one of several that WMUR and its partners are holding around the state, Bartlett said.

Most often, he said, people are confused over whether they need a converter box, confusion about channels moving on the dial before and after the switch and the difference between digital and high-definition televisions.

“I runs the gamut,” he said. “It’s not that complicated, but people haven’t focused on it. Everybody’s a little different in how their TVs are set up.”