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Television
John Carman Banner
KNTV's poor reception
Many Bay Area viewers can't get signal from new NBC affiliate

John Carman, Tim Goodman, Chronicle Staff Writers
  Friday, January 4, 2002

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NBC, the "must see TV" network, became "can't see TV" this week for hundreds of thousands of Bay Area television viewers.

With reactions ranging from nonchalance to outrage, viewers are adjusting to a network affiliation switch that's left many of them without access to "ER, " "The West Wing" and other popular NBC programs.

On Wednesday, NBC issued a new estimate of the number of Bay Area TV households likely to encounter problems getting a signal from its new Bay Area affiliate, KNTV (Channel 11).

According to a Roper study commissioned by NBC, about 212,000 of the Bay Area's 2.4 million TV households could have trouble getting Channel 11. Of that number, 145,000 are in San Francisco. It's the clearest evidence yet that the affiliation switch from KRON (Channel 4) effectively reduced San Francisco to Siberia status at NBC -- an unintended consequence of the network's marriage to KNTV.

KNTV's broadcast signal, transmitted from Loma Prieta in Santa Clara County,

is as strong as anyone else's. But for San Francisco viewers, it comes from a greater distance and a different direction than signals other stations transmit from Mount Sutro in San Francisco.

Once NBC chose KNTV as its affiliate, the station's reception in the northern part of the Bay Area became a concern. A 2000 engineering study commissioned by another station, KTVU (Channel 2), suggested that KNTV delivered an inadequate signal to the westernmost and northernmost sections of San Francisco.

In material it submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last year,

KNTV said its over-the-air signal covered not only its Santa Clara County base but also all of San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, and most of Solano, Napa and Marin counties.

KNTV MAY MOVE TRANSMITTER

Help may be on the way, although probably not soon enough to improve signal reception for NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Utah next month.

Bob Franklin, general manager of KNTV, said this week that the San Jose station's transmitter might be moved about 25 miles north, from Loma Prieta to Mount Allison.

Mount Allison is in southern Alameda County, just north of the Santa Clara County line. The move, currently the subject of engineering studies, presumably would improve KNTV's over-the-air reception north of San Jose.

But Franklin conceded that it's impossible to guarantee universal signal reception -- no Bay Area station can. Asked when the transmitter might be moved, he said, "I couldn't even hazard a guess."

Anyone waiting for KNTV to jack up its actual signal power will be disappointed. The station increased its transmission power in mid-2000 and is already at the maximum allowed by the FCC, Franklin said.

A FIFTH OF A RATINGS POINT

For NBC, the loss of 212,000 households would have national ratings consequences. The figure translates into about one-fifth of one ratings point nationally. The network is buying KNTV and is expected to take over direct management of the station later this year.

"Every household that can't get us is an issue," said NBC spokesman Cory Shields.

Besides the ratings damage, there is the ancillary issue of NBC's reduced presence in a city that is a cultural, financial and advertising center.

Jay Ireland, president of NBC television stations, understands that the switch has caused angst and anger among viewers. "We know there are going to be disgruntled people. We knew that going in," he said yesterday. "None of us are happy when our viewers can't get our signal."

As for potential damage to NBC's national ratings, Ireland said, "It's a risk we knew was going to occur," but he said he didn't think there would be enough of a slip to stop the network from switching to KNTV.

There may be no immediate help for those people unable to get the signal. Ireland said setting up a center to field calls -- the number is (800) 508- 6223 -- is the first step in trying to find out where the trouble spots are. In the next week, he said, the station will "dispatch teams to get on the ground and see what we could do" in various areas.

Ireland urged people to call so NBC can find out the extent of the problem. So far, KNTV has logged 1,600 calls and 500 e-mails (the e-mail address is nbc3helpdesk@nbc3.com).

Those tech teams might be able to help people redirect antennas or advise them on other minor moves that could improve reception. But, Ireland said, if they find "a full blackout area" in some cities, "there may not be a solution."

As for moving the tower north, Ireland said he wouldn't speculate on when that might occur and cautioned that NBC is evaluating whether such a switch would even be able to boost the number of people who could receive the signal.

In other words, don't expect a tower move anytime soon, if at all. "It's a longer-term issue," Ireland said.

CABLE IS $11 MINIMUM

So what can frustrated viewers do? The most obvious solution for people who have lost NBC programming is cable. The Bay Area's dominant cable carrier, AT&T Broadband, advertised heavily to attract new subscribers before the switch on New Year's Eve.

The best cut-rate cable package AT&T can offer costs about $11 a month; the exact price varies slightly among the company's various systems.

That package includes virtually all the TV stations in the Bay Area, including KNTV. It doesn't include such cable-only basic channels as CNN, ESPN and Nickelodeon.

Andrew Johnson, a spokesman for AT&T Broadband, said new cable installations in December were running 15 to 20 percent ahead of the previous year, a smaller increase than the carrier had expected.

He said AT&T Broadband hasn't decided whether to extend a special offer of next-day installation service beyond this week.

About three-quarters of the homes in the Bay Area are already wired for cable. KNTV occupies the Channel 3 position on most cable systems.

In e-mails to The Chronicle, some Bay Area viewers voiced resentment at having to receive NBC as a "pay TV" channel or not at all.

"I grew up in the television age, and ABC, NBC and CBS always seemed like God-given rights, no matter what happened in the world of UHF, cable or satellite," said Joe Devney of Oakland. "I guess I've got to change my view now."

"I find it really bizarre and indefensible that NBC would basically thumb its nose at such a large segment of the viewing public," said Alison O'Neil of San Francisco. "If they do not care to have me as part of their viewing audience, I certainly do not want to pay to receive their station by buying cable."

Jodi Schorb, who lives in Bernal Heights, said the loss of a clear over-the- air signal "forces many of the most economically vulnerable Bay Area residents to bear the financial burden of KRON and NBC's bad breakup."

"Maybe what bothers me most about this whole NBC thing is that it bothers me at all. I have visions of myself fighting the good fight for affordable housing, gay rights, municipal power and off-leash dog parks in San Francisco, and now find myself in the rather ignoble position of arguing that watching 'Saturday Night Live,' 'Dateline' and 'Weakest Link' is a right, not a privilege. 'Just Shoot Me,' indeed."

There are residents in the northern part of the Bay Area -- the number is unknown -- who have lost NBC programming and have no way to restore it. They're apartment dwellers whose landlords won't allow cable.

AT&T Broadband's Johnson said it isn't uncommon for landlords to reject cable after failing to negotiate an agreeable building-wide price for cable entry. Most, he said, hope to profit by offering cable to tenants.

QUALITY ALARMS CABLE PROVIDER

The switch has caused confusion in areas beyond whether viewers can get NBC over the air. One of the more immediate and troubling aspects of the switch has been the signal and sound quality of KNTV's picture -- even over cable lines. Readers have called it "atrocious," and AT&T Broadband has been so alarmed by the low quality that it called an emergency meeting with KNTV yesterday afternoon to address the situation.

"We've received customer complaints about the quality of the signal they're receiving," Johnson said. "It's not up to the standards our customers are seeking."

He said the reception problems are not cable related, since the company laid fiber-optic connections into the KNTV parking lot and the station's new satellite dishes. KNTV will be asked to get its technicians to "resolve the problem (last night) if not sooner."

Readers complained of poor sound and picture as early as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on Monday -- the very first NBC program KNTV aired. Complaints to AT&T Broadband increased by Wednesday night, when "The West Wing" kept going in and out.

KNTV's Franklin said the problem is in the hardware and won't take long to repair. "It's a fixable problem. It's an electronic thing. It doesn't have anything to do with mountains."

KNTV technicians were working on the situation yesterday.

E-mail the writers at jcarman@sfchronicle.com and tgoodman@sfchronicle.com.


 
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