Mary Jean, sitting in a lawn chair

Consider the case of our neighbor Mary Jean (pictured above in warmer days). In her roughly 90 years as an American, she has seen all sorts of technological and economic waves break, splash, and recede. While not afraid of the latest and greatest, she also values the tried and true. She has never had a digital antenna.

I thought about her this past summer when publicity for the digital television switchover began to ratchet up. Both of Mary Jean’s TV sets are older, picture tube models and, as I had suspected, she does not subscribe to cable TV. I explained to her that she would need to buy a couple of digital converter boxes before February 17, 2009, and I used my computer to sign her up online for her two $40 TV converter box coupons.

The coupons, which looked like credit cards, arrived in her mail a few weeks later and I drove her over to Circuit City to buy her digital TV converter boxes. Initially, I hooked up only her living room TV, leaving her set in the kitchen untouched, so it could serve as a backup while she got used to the new remote control and leaving her TV on channel three and all the rest of the little specifics that can be difficult if you’re not used to them.

Before long, though, Mary Jean had pretty much mastered the new remote, and she liked her setup well enough that when a new neighbor moved in next door to her, she came over to our house with his name, address, and phone number on an index card to get him signed up for digital TV converter box coupons too.

I have since converted her set in the kitchen. There have been a few glitches — for example, a brief power outage erased the boxes’ configurations, so I had to run through the setup menus for her again. All in all, though, it’s been a pretty smooth transition, and she seemed ready for February 17.

Then yesterday, she called me again because she couldn’t understand anything the people on TV were saying. Sure enough, when I got there, I found that her channels were all blocky and semi-frozen, with the sound only audible in short bursts, about every fifth word. The gale-force winds of Sunday night and Monday had blown her TV antenna around to the east, toward Lake Michigan, instead of north, toward Milwaukee, where she normally gets her television. Furthermore, her ancient Channel Master rotator (or “rotor,” as we say in Wisconsin) was no longer turning the large antenna which, upon closer observation, was tilted slightly toward the ground.

Now she needed an antenna guy, and apparently this has become a rare breed in modern times. One that I called, based on the Yellow Pages ad showing his nifty van, said he has since gone out of the antenna business. Eventually, I found Best Antenna Service in Union Grove, and they were able to show up at Mary Jean’s house in Racine just one hour later.

Digitial TV antenna: Winegard model HD-4400Her huge, old, triangular antenna array was wind damaged, and the motor that turned it was rusted and broken. Best Antenna Service replaced both of them. The new antenna (shown at left, Winegard model HD-4400) is much more compact and vertical. Strictly speaking, it’s a UHF antenna, but everything comes in just fine from both Milwaukee and Chicago, depending on which way the unit is oriented.

Mary Jean called me again after they left, complaining that she could not change channels or volume levels with the “new remote.” I inquired about her converter box, and she told me that the men had put a new box on top of the converter box, and that the new box had its own new remote, which seemed useless. Could I please come over at once?

Channel Master antenna rotator; DTV converter boxAs it turns out, the new box is a digital Channel Master antenna rotator unit. It displays a number between zero and 360, corresponding to the compass direction the antenna is facing. It does not change channels or volume, and since Mary Jean says she only ever watches Milwaukee channels, leaving it permanently on about 27 or so will work just fine.

What has struck me, through all this, is that this old antenna technology, which the majority of homeowners seem to have removed entirely from their houses, now pulls in a good many crystal clear channels of programming for free. Many of the familiar channels now also have an auxiliary channel — or two or three of them. While one program is airing on the main PBS channel, for example, there’s a completely different additional show in Spanish, plus a cooking show, plus a local weather channel. Mary Jean could now potentially receive 60 or more channels between all of the Chicago and Milwaukee stations and their multiple channels. Sure, some are just satellite weather images, but once you own an antenna, they’re all free. Mary Jean is already the envy of her neighbor, who wants to buy a new antenna of his own when tax refund time rolls around.

Digital TV antenna: Winegard HD 4400, with Mary Jean

Now factor in our new, ruined economy, and all of the cutbacks that families everywhere are making in their budgets, and cable or satellite TV starts to seem less essential. Could it be that antenna guys will be suddenly installing new digital antennas instead of simply taking the old ones down? Might we see a return to free TV as God intended it — as David Letterman has been touting for years?

Mary Jean just shrugs and smiles.

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