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Some viewers still experiencing problems with DTV switchover

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2009 - Firefighter Tim Jones called Geneva Rhodes on his cell phone while he was standing at her front door to tell her he was ready to fix her digital converter box.

Rhodes, an 86-year-old north St. Louis resident, is one of hundreds of callers who reported problems with the DTV switchover to KETC Channel 9. She lost her DTV signal earlier this week but didn't know why.

"I can't get nothing on it," she said. "I don't know what I did, but I did something."

Jones looked at her setup, while Rhodes put down her cane and sat on her bed. Her TV was connected to a digital converter box, which had an antenna.

After he turned the TV on and saw a black screen, Jones said, "The box is off. You gotta keep your box on."

Rhodes laughed at the problem's simplicity. Months ago, she bought the converter box with her government coupon.

"I liked the way it was," she said about the half-century-old analog signal.

To fix the problem, Jones turned on Rhodes' converter box, tightened the coaxial cable, turned off a timer that shut down the box and adjusted her bunny ear antenna so "Live with Regis and Kelly" came in crystal clear.

"This remote is used for volume control and channels -- not power," Jones said about the box's remote.

He told Rhodes that if she had more trouble, he'd be happy to come back rather than sit behind a desk at the St. Louis Fire Department.

"I'll try not to mess it up," Rhodes said.

The visit from Jones is one of about 200 visits that city firefighters on light duty have made since Jan. 30. The St. Louis fire department made an agreement with KETC-Channel 9 to help people who have technical problems with their TV setup. (Other TV stations got hundreds of calls during the switchover, but they don't have a partnership with the Fire Department to help viewers.) 

Rhodes only needed to turn on her box and rescan to pick up channels, but hundreds of St. Louisans have tougher problems, thanks to Mother Nature.

The temperature, terrain and even plants or trees in bloom can affect DTV signals.

"From what we understand, from our engineers and from the (Federal Communications Commission) is that the digital signal is and can be affected by blossoms on trees, leaves on trees and trees themselves," said Kay Porter, KETC's director of marketing.

Some people who got DTV signals in the fall and winter lost channels well into spring when flowers and trees bloom, said Angela Smith, a communications assistant at KETC.

The signal is "basically degrading with every bloom and leaf it goes through," added Smith. TV viewers who suspect foliage obstructions should readjust their antenna and rescan.

Relief may not come in the winter either if snow and ice storms hit St. Louis. Since DTV signals are like satellite transmissions, the data signal can be interrupted. As a result, people will see blocks.

In the last week before the switchover on June 12, KETC received more than 600 callers who needed help. Few people have the same problem.

"It's a complicated situation," Porter said. "Every case is a little bit different."

KETC engineers are trying to identify problem pockets. For example, many callers are in University City, Porter said, so KETC engineers set up a DTV box, TV and antenna in a van and checked KETC's signal strength in a number of spots in University City. They could not draw a solid conclusion why so many people can't pick up KETC in that area.

"It's a different beast," Porter said about digital transmission. "A majority of the people really do not have technical understanding of television signals in general."

Back at Rhodes' residence, Tim Jones made sure the TV and antenna were positioned firmly. He suggested Rhodes buy a coaxial cable that screws in to the back of the TV. Then, as he left, he said, "She played with it."

From the calls to which he's responded, he said most people who need help are older. "It's different to them," Jones said.

The Double rescan

The Federal Communications Commission suggests the double rescan for people who can't pick up channels. Angela Smith, at KETC-Channel 9, goes through the four steps:

1. Disconnect the antenna from the digital converter box.

2. Conduct a full digital channel scan with the box. (Directions come with the box on how to navigate the box's menu.)

3. Reconnect the antenna to the converter box.

4. Conduct another full digital channel scan.

Christian Losciale, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at the University of Missouri Columbia.