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It's no Y2K, but TV switch already a pain

The pains of the switch to digital television already are apparent, a few months before it happens.

Kentucky residents have been calling stations with general questions, but some are now questioning why their recently purchased digital converter boxes won't pick up popular stations such as CBS affiliate WKYT-27.

It turns out it's not the box, it's the antenna.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered Lexington's stations to switch their digital broadcast numbers from a UHF (ultra high frequency) channel to a VHF (very high frequency) channel, and some antennas won't pick up numbers in a certain range.

To avoid problems, consumers should have an antenna that receives both UHF and VHF signals.

Here is what changed:

From the beginning, Lexington had been a UHF market, meaning stations were assigned channel numbers of 14 or higher: NBC affiliate WLEX was 18, WKYT, 27; ABC affiliate WTVQ, 36; and Fox affiliate WDKY, 56.

But now WKYT and WDKY are assigned VHF numbers. WKYT is digital channel 13, while WDKY is channel 4. Meanwhile, WLEX is channel 39 and WTVQ is 40.

Despite those being the digital numbers, televisions continue to display them under the traditional channel numbers of 18, 27, 36 and 56, to avoid confusion.

Mike Kanarek, vice president of operations at WKYT, said the FCC made the move to minimize the amount of interference between adjoining markets.

"We were just about on the edge because a Huntington (W.Va.) market is really close to us," he said.

WKYT General Manager Wayne Martin said some area residents have UHF-only antennas, creating the problems.

The station is getting eight to 10 phone calls or e-mails a week about the issue, Kanarek said.

Martin said people living close enough to Lexington can probably still pick up the station with an incorrect antenna, but it might be tougher for those farther away.

Michael Brickey, general manager at WDKY, said the station is receiving more calls about just general questions on the transition to digital TV in February. At that time, stations will turn off their analog signals, which are transmitted as radio waves, and broadcast only in digital signals, transmitted as computer code.

Any TV connected to cable or satellite service will still receive the proper signal. Those that aren't will need a converter box that converts the digital signal to analog. Many TVs sold recently are digital. Coupons are available from the government at www.dtv2009.gov to lower the converter box's cost.

"Even though we run messages throughout the day about the changeover, you can imagine what's going to happen when we really shut off," Brickey said.

To that end, the network affiliates in Lexington, as well as KET, are planning to cooperate to produce a half-hour special in early December that will be aired simultaneously on all channels.

That program will explain the change and potentially simulate it for a few minutes, allowing analog customers to know they'll be affected.

Television stations in Louisville are cooperating for a similar test.

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