August 17, 2018

Over-the-air TV watchers will have a chore to do

By: Carter Wyckoff

Philadelphia Inquirer August 17, 2018


Television officials say that people should be prepared for “rescan days” with their TV remotes.

For the second time in a decade, the federal government and television broadcasters are messing with over-the-air television signals, this time to make available wireless capacity for smart phones.

A decade ago, the entire TV industry switched to digital signals from analog, a heavily advertised and national program called the DTV transition.

But this time, about half of U.S. television stations are relocating their frequencies in a repacking of the wireless spectrum that officially kicks off next month and stretches through mid-2020. Television officials say that people should be prepared for “rescan days” with their TV remotes — which means they rescan their televisions, or reprogram on the day of the frequency switch — so that they won’t lose television reception.

About 550,000 households in the Philadelphia TV market still tune in to over-the-air television. Nationwide, the number is 77 million. This older TV technology has grown in popularity in recent years with cord-cutters as millennials and boomers package free over-the-air television with streaming services for their entertainment, skipping cable and satellite.

“We’re concerned that people might think there is something wrong with their televisions,” said Steve Gardner, an official with the National Association of Broadcasters. He added that people won’t need new equipment as they did a decade ago when the government mandated that television broadcasters switch from analog to digital signals.

Gardner and others emphasize that cable- or satellite-TV customers, including those with Verizon Fios TV, don’t have to rescan their televisions. Their TV signals come over cable or satellite.

The spectrum repack was triggered by an auction of wireless spectrum, run by the Federal Communications Commission, that enabled television broadcasters to sell some wireless spectrum to wireless companies in 2017. The auction raised $19.8 billion. Comcast, T-Mobile and other telecom companies were among those that acquired the spectrum. But this also forced about half the nation’s television stations to relocate their frequencies.

Nineteen Philadelphia TV stations, among them CBS, NBC and Fox, will find a new place in the TV ether. To stay tuned in to their networks, people with over-the-air television sets will have to “rescan” their digital televisions with their remotes to lock in to the new frequencies, TV officials say.

Some public-interest, religious and Spanish-language television stations in the Philadelphia area have already shifted their frequencies. These include Univision 65, Telemundo 62, New Jersey’s WNJT, and PBS39.

Because it will share spectrum with another television station and because it was mandated by the FCC, PBS39 in Bethlehem made the frequency switch last month — or before the official kickoff of the repack program next month.

“We were prepared for the worst and it never really happened,” said Jim Macdonald, PBS39’s director of marketing. PBS39 televised public service announcements and informed viewers of the frequency change, with the need to rescan their televisions, about a month before the switch. PBS39 also produced a three-minute step-by-step video on how to rescan for TV signals at the time of the frequency changes. Macdonald estimated that about a dozen viewers called, emailed or contacted PBS39 through social media about the frequency change.

Because of a shortage of TV rigs that can replace the transmission equipment for television stations, the frequency changes are staggered throughout the nation. About a dozen television-installation crews are responsible for the national program and they will work on several stations at one time in particular TV markets.

“There are not a ton of crews doing this,” Gardner said. “It’s highly technical and it’s not something that has a lot of longterm demand.”

Most of the Philadelphia-area television stations that haven’t already switched frequencies will do so between June 22 and Aug. 2, 2019. It’s during this period when people will have to rescan their televisions, with buttons on their remotes. They are CBS3, NBC 10, NJTV, Son-Life Broadcasting Network 25, ION Media Networks 61, CW Television Network 57, WPSJ, WQAV, FOX 29, WDPB and Uni-Mas 28.

The last station to change frequencies will be WHYY between March 14 and May 1, 2020.