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
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 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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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