Digital switch threaten's Chicago's Korean TV channel

Soon Lee watches the local Korean TV station, KBC-TV, on an old analog TV set, complete with rabbit ears.

Right now, Lee, the proprietor of Noon Hour Grill on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park, can watch all the other channels on that TV, too. But that day is coming to an end.

Congress is mandating a switch to digital television this summer, and Lee knows she’ll need to get a digital converter box.

However, switching on the converter box could mean KBC-TV and its original ethnic programming go dark on Lee’s tube. Many of the boxes kill reception of non-digital stations. 

This could mean the end for special programming for tens of thousands of Chicago residents who enjoy shows broadcasted by these small, low-power stations that aren't required to go digital.

Scott Bae, vice president of operations at KBC-TV, says viewers are calling him, complaining that they lost reception because they installed DTV converter boxes.

Today, officials from the Community Broadcasters Association, which represents the low-power TV industry,  and some TV station owners themselves will be in Washington, D.C., formally requesting the FCC's help.

In the world of TV broadcasting, one group is clearly being left behind, Bae and other say. While larger broadcasters have the funds and are mandated to switch to digital broadcasting, low-power TV stations don’t have the money and aren’t required to do so.

And they may also lose their viewership.

“The current ad campaign for the digital transition has been a huge disservice to us because they are a clear example of misinformation,” Bae says. 

The ads tell people that they must buy a converter box, but do not mention anything about losing access to low-power stations.

Bae also claims that retail stores are making matters worse by not providing enough training for their staff and thereby further confusing customers of the small stations, many of them owned by ethnic minorities whose audiences might already have difficulty conversing with the sales staff due to their limited language skills. 

While local station owners wring their hands here in Chicago, the problem is national. There are thousands of low-power stations nationwide.

In a statement, the president of the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA), Ronald Bruno says the switch to digital will cost the group viewers.

"Every time a person gets a coupon, buys a converter box and plugs it in, we lose that viewer,” he says.

In March of 2008, CBA petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce the agency’s own All Channel Receiver Act, ensuring that all available converter boxes were capable to receiving all frequencies, both analog and digital.

Even though the suit was never acted upon, enough publicity was generated that manufacturers started making more models available that had analog pass-through.

The converter boxes are only part of the problem facing community stations, experts say. Even though they are not required to, many are seeking funding to upgrade to digital broadcasting since it provides better picture quality and longer signal range.

However, financing is increasingly difficult to come by during the recession. And since more than 40 percent of low-power stations are minority-owned and a third offer foreign language programming, owners and supporters fear that this diversity might soon be lost without some help from the FCC.