Tuning into changes

Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Local HDTV owners are becoming frustrated over the lack of local HD channels on satellite TV.

First you paid $1,500 for the high-definition television set, then you plunked down $49.99 a month for satellite service in high definition, and you still can't see the sweat pour down Michael Vick's face.

For local satellite HD subscribers such as Brandon Knox, not being able to see local stations such as Fox affiliate WFXG or CBS' WRDW in high definition is next to impossible, and frustrating.

"If they would just give me my locals in HD, I would never go back to cable again," said Mr. Knox, who bought DISH Network service two years ago but can't get local stations' HD channels.

Augusta is not the only midsize city lacking local HD TV satellite.

Providing local HD signals requires satellite providers to invest in upgrades to expand their capacities. So far, the two largest satellite TV providers, DISH Network and DirecTV, have limited these investments to mostly larger markets, such as Atlanta.

"It's a very fine balancing act between what we have the bandwidth to produce, what the programmers have and the demand," said Corey Vasquez, a spokeswoman for DISH Network, which has HD local service in 29 markets.

Representatives from Comcast and Knology said HD service is available for local affiliates.

High definition technology has been around for several years, but broadcasters say confusion still exists about how it works.

Some consumers who buy HD-ready TVs, for example, don't realize they must have HD-broadcast programming - delivered by satellite or cable or over the air through old-fashioned "rabbit ear" antennas.

Satellite subscribers such as Mr. Knox say high definition is worth the cost because the resolution is significantly better. Some actors have even considered plastic surgery or other ways to conceal flaws because the high resolution reveals even the smallest blemish.

Mr. Knox, who has two HD sets, said he uses an antenna plugged into his satellite box - a common way to receive HD signals - to help him receive HD local channels.

That is unreliable, though, and he'd like for his provider to, well, provide them.

Managers for Augusta-area affiliates - WFXG, WRDW, WJBF (ABC) and WAGT (NBC) - say they've had HD signals available for a couple of years in most cases.

"Our HD signal is there for them (satellite companies) to capture and bring back into the market," said John Ray, WRDW's station manager.

Customers frustrated that they can't receive network broadcasts in HD from their local affiliates can ask their satellite provider to help them apply for a waiver that would allow the customer to receive the signal from an affiliate outside the Augusta market.

The waiver, however, must be approved by the local affiliates, which have legal rights to serve designated markets. Because approving such a waiver would reduce an affiliate's market share, they are rarely granted.

Bill Stewart, the general manager for WJBF, said some viewers who apply for waivers don't even have HD problems - they just want the station from New York. If they let one person do it, they have to let everyone, he said.

"If we start doing that, then we might as will not have local stations," Mr. Stewart said.

WAGT's station manager, Jeff Marks, said his station might approve a waiver if the satellite customer can't receive the signal using a traditional antenna.

"If people can pick up our channel with an antenna, then we're certainly not going to give away that protection," he said.

Reach Laura Youngs at (706) 823-3227 or laura.youngs@augustachronicle.com.

GETTING AROUND THE PROBLEM

Who thought the roof antenna or rabbit ears would ever be necessary again? To learn more about how low-tech antennas can help you receive high-definition television signals, go to the Consumer Electronics Association Web site on antennas at www.antennaweb.org.

WHAT'S OUT THERE

As technology changes, a conversion to digital and HD formats might be inevitable. Stations currently provide analog and, in many cases, digital signals.

A government mandate, however, requires that all programming be converted from analog to digital by 2009. Dennis Wharton, the spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said the majority of broadcasters have made the switch to digital.

That change might push faster HD availability, he said. Some extra channels, such as ESPN, are in HD, while others aren't. For the most part, local programming, such as syndicate shows or the evening news, isn't available in HD, while prime-time shows usually are. It likely will remain that way until stations can afford to purchase the new equipment needed to film the local news in HD.

"I think that's going to be an impetus for broadcasters, cable and sate to upgrade technology," Mr. Wharton said.

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