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Margaret's Musings: The digital divide - welcoming a new era of television

Normal television viewing for many Americans came to an end June 12. The people generally referred to as the Greatest Generation have a new challenge to overcome, especially if they live in an area that just happens to be 50 miles from the closest broadcast station.

Such is the case with many across America. Over 17 million Americans still rely on antennas to bring them their signals, and many of those are outside a reception area.

Not only will they not be able to tune in for their favorite show or news broadcast, they will watch the image freeze, become pixilated and in many cases go blank with a message advising them there is no signal. It may or may not come back.

What the government didn't tell consumers - those of us without access to cable or a dish - is that television as we knew it is gone. Even if you were one of the prepared ones with a converter box or a new HDTV, if you live outside of a 30-mile radius from the broadcast source you might as well turn off the set for the summer.

My folks happen to live in the Bermuda triangle of the digital broadcast world, smack dab in the center, 50 miles or more from Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and Rockford, all areas from which they could receive analog signals.

It was suggested by an employee of a nationwide chain of stores that sells everything related to TV and electronics that individuals write their legislators to complain. He also advised to do nothing for at least 30 to 60 days, do not purchase a new TV, antenna, amp booster for the antenna or any gadget that offers solutions. Let the dust settle and let the broadcasters sort out the rubble.

His only suggestion was to re-scan twice a day because many of the stations were boosting their signal after 4 p.m. In other words, channels available at night were not available during the day and vice versa.

According to the government's own Web site, "signal strength calculations are based on the traditional TV reception model assuming you have an outdoor antenna 30 feet above ground level."

We have a saying in this business about the word "assume." The architects of the switch assumed that if you were relying on an antenna that it would be 30 feet tall. If you add in topography, even tree leaves, you cut back considerably the amount of signal that actually reaches your house.

We are fortunate in that we live in a relatively small market area, and Hudson is near the 30-mile radius. A search of the FCC Web site shows that 11 primary channels are available to us, all with strong signals, except the two that have moderate signals. When the screen goes blank at our house we just turn it off. It is not worth the effort to scroll through all the stations to see which one has a signal strong enough to reach our house -- even if we initially have a signal it doesn't mean it is going to make it through a whole program.

Turning off the TV in summer is much easier to do -- reruns, daylight and our age make it simpler to just turn the set off.

It is just a guess, but I would surmise the advertisers are probably not too happy about this transition either. Not only is their message not getting to its target, the stations have diluted their viewers by offering multiple digital options. In larger markets, some of the channels now offer nine versions of themselves.

Perhaps this is a chance for newspapers to jump in and regain some momentum with niche marketing and reminders to consumers that our Web sites and printed products do not go blank mid-read.

The switch to digital did not start after the attack on the World Trade Center - the reason often cited was to free up band width for emergency response communications. It actually started long before that, in 1997. The original date for the complete transition was to be 2006.

The cost to taxpayers has been significant, at last count the delay from February to June cost 1.34 billion. The environmental cost of rendering millions of televisions useless remains to be seen.

Change is always a challenge, and once the broadcasters sort out the bugs, we will all be happier with better-quality images and more channel options, if that is what you want.

In the meantime, it might be a great to go back to radio, read the newspaper, read a book or go out and enjoy the summer. By fall, they surely will have a better offering for those of us who still rely on an antenna for our "signals."