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The ‘digital cliff’

TV signal switch may leave some in the dark

January 4, 2009
By ZACH SUBAR/The Leader-Herald

Chris Cobb loves to watch his television shows.

On Feb. 17, he may no longer be able to watch them.

That's the day the Federal Communications Commission will switch all television signals to digital-only.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Jan Sears, foreground, and Theresa Lee watch television in the community room at the Senior Citizens Service Center of Gloversville & Fulton County Wednesday. Some seniors own older, analog TVs and are using an antenna. They will have to buy a converter box.

This change will affect people whose analog TVs use an antenna and have no cable or satellite service. In most cases, these people can buy a converter box to receive a signal.

But Cobb, who lives in Speculator and owns an analog-only television set, will lose broadcast service because he relies on a transmission tower roughly 65 miles away in Utica for his programs.

"I'm very old. I'm 84," said Cobb. "I don't know if I'm going to be able to get a new television right now."

Other like Cobb who live in rural areas also may lose service.

Many people who use an antenna and rely on a broadcast signal from a transmission tower live 30 to 65 miles away from the nearest tower. Analog-only televisions in these areas receive a weak signal.

However, if a digital signal is too weak, the TV screen goes blank. Even if those affected purchase a digital converter box and hook it up to their analog-only television, they still will not be able to receive service because they are too far from a digital signal.

"It's not necessary right now," said Cobb. "We don't need that change."

Deirdre Murphy, a spokeswoman for the office of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the senator has asked the Department of Commerce to address this so-called "digital cliff" problem.

"We sent several letters to them asking them to really look into different aspects of the digital TV transition that haven't been going as well as Sen. Schumer would like to see," she said. "We don't really know a lot about the digital cliff and who could be falling off it."

Individuals can apply through the Department of Commerce for coupons, each worth $40, that go toward the cost of buying a digital converter box. The boxes are priced from $40 to $80.

Those who are too far from a transmission tower to receive service, though, may still be left in the dark. In addition to the converter, they may need to purchase a residential antenna and booster for their television, which could add a financial burden for individuals coping with the switch. Prices for antennas vary from about $10 to more than $100. Boosters cost about $20 to more than $60.

"There are no funds set aside for people to get an antenna," said Todd Sedmak, a spokesman for the television converter box coupon program at the Commerce Department. "There's nothing like that at this time."

Many local residents in outlying areas have already set themselves up to handle the switch.

Supervisors from Dolgeville, Ephratah and Stratford said they did not know of anyone who would be affected within their respective municipalities. Speculator Mayor Neil McGovern said many residents in his village had already switched over to satellite TV.

"My sense is a very small amount of people will be affected because aerial antenna recognition has always been problematic," McGovern said. "For the most part, folks around here were much quicker to embrace satellite television."

Wells Supervisor Brian Towers said most town residents also had moved away from antenna service.

Senior citizens were considered potential victims of the switch. Many own older televisions, and some may not have the means to obtain a new one.

Yet seniors in the Glove Cities are generally well equipped to handle the transition.

Senior Citizens Service Center of Gloversville & Fulton County Executive Director Catherine Mueller said there were a few seniors who needed converter boxes, but most did not.

"It really wasn't much of an issue at all," she said.

The Fulton County Office for Aging did outreach work in May to inform senior citizens of the upcoming switch. It put a message in its newsletter, and sent officials to various outreach locations equipped with information concerning the matter.

OFA Coordinator of Services Diane Savage said some had questions about whether they would be affected, but most were not.

"I think that they're pretty well educated about it now," she said.

Still, McGovern said, "There are a few still left" in his village who will need to make the switch.

Cobb is one of them, and as of now, he is not sure what he can do to remedy the situation.

"I'm not pleased," he said.

For more information, call 1-888-DTV-2009 or visit

Zach Subar can be reached at



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