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DTV converter boxes aplenty, but good luck finding an antenna

Retailers easily fill demand for DTV converter boxes for older analog TVs, but in New York City antennas are in short supply.

NEW YORK--Louise Coleman of Brooklyn, N.Y., did everything she was supposed to do before full-power TV broadcasters in the U.S. turned off their analog TV signals and started broadcasting only in digital, but she still found herself in a Best Buy store on the DTV deadline day, Friday, buying the last amplified digital antenna on the store shelf.

An indoor amplified HDTV antenna from RCA, which is owned by Audiovox Audiovox

Coleman said she had gotten her $40 coupon from the government and bought a digital converter box for her older analog TV before the first deadline for the switch to digital TV on February 17. And she even bought a new flat screen digital-ready TV for her living room to replace an old analog TV that was on its last legs. So she thought she was prepared.

But when Coleman hooked up her digital converter box to her TV using her existing antenna on the eve of the digital transition, she discovered that she could get every regular broadcast TV station except channel 2. Meanwhile, using a new TV antenna with a built-in signal amplifier attached to her digital ready flat-screen TV, she was able to get all the regular channels, plus two extra channels. So off she went to Best Buy, to pick up the very last digital TV antenna with a signal amplifier the store had in stock at a cost of $50.

"I was prepared back in February for the switch," she said. "But then when I hooked up the box last night, I realized that I wasn't getting all the channels and that I probably needed a different antenna, so here I am again."

Coleman was not alone. While much of the hoopla around the digital TV transition for the past several months has focused on whether people with older analog TVs had a digital converter box to receive digital signals, a big issue for New Yorkers on Friday when broadcasters flipped the switch to digital was finding an antenna to improve their reception.

TV antennas were in short supply in New York City Friday when full power broadcast TV stations switched to digital-only TV broadcasts. Marguerite Reardon CNET

By 1 p.m. EDT the Radio Shack on 23rd Street near Park Avenue had plenty of converter boxes in the store, but it was all out of antennas. The Best Buy just down the block on 23rd Street and 6th Avenue only had a few antennas left by mid-afternoon. And by 5 p.m. a Best Buy customer service representative at the store on Broadway and 62nd Street said that antennas were sold out in Manhattan. The only stores that still had them in stock were in Queens. As for converter boxes, the representative said the store still had 242 left.

Justin Barber, a spokesman for Best Buy, said that as of Friday evening, Best Buy stores across the country were meeting demand for converter boxes. He couldn't say whether other areas around the country were experiencing antenna shortages. But he said that the company had anticipated a spike in demand.

"We have been working with our antenna vendors to get additional inventory," he said. "That was definitely something we were planning for in anticipation of the DTV switch."

It's difficult to say how widespread the potential antenna shortage has been. Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, said he hadn't heard that antennas were in short supply. But he said he wasn't surprised that antennas are in high demand.

"You really do need an antenna to receive digital signals," he said.

Best Buy had plenty of digital TV converter boxes on hand for last minute shoppers. Marguerite Reardon CNET

But Wigfield added that people may not need to rush out and buy a new antenna. They may be able to use the existing antenna they had used to get analog TV signals. But he said that whether the antenna is new or old, consumers should make sure it supports both UHF and VHF radio frequencies. VHF antennas have traditionally been the rabbit-ear antennas that receive channels 2-13. And UHF antennas have been in the shape of a circle or bow-tie. These antennas are used to tune channels 14-51. Now that broadcasters are only transmitting in digital, it's important to have an antenna that supports both VHF and UHF, since many digital signals are now being broadcast in UHF frequencies.

In addition to VHF/UHF antennas there are also amplified antennas that can be used to improve reception. In the case of Louise Coleman, the amplified antenna, helped her get all the standard TV channels offered in her area, as well as two more channels she couldn't get with analog TV.

But retailers caution consumers that no antenna is a one-size fits all solution, something Richard Savelli, of Manhattan learned the hard way. Savelli had bought a basic rabbit ear-style antenna from Radio Shack when he picked up his converter box earlier this year, but even with the new antenna he isn't able to tune in some digital TV channels. He was in Best Buy on Friday looking to buy a new antenna. But the pickings were rather slim.

"It is frustrating," he said. "Nobody told me I needed a special antenna. But cable is too expensive and I don't want to give them my money."

Figuring out exactly which antenna to use can be a big challenge. The FCC has some information on its Web site that provides some help. But most of the information on the Internet is about outside antennas. Still, Wigfield recommends that consumers check out the FCC Website and use a tool that allows people to put in their address and ZIP code to see where their local station transmitters are located and what kind of signal they can expect to get. There is also information available about the different types of antennas.

CNET Reviews associate editor Matthew Moskovciak says that the position of the antenna is often more important than the type of antenna used. He also says that newer converter boxes work much better than ones made just a few years. Moskovciak, who reviews antennas and digital converter boxes for CNET, has also been an over-the-air TV viewer for the past three years. And he says he has spent hours testing and figuring out which solution works best for getting digital TV signals in his Astoria, Queens, apartment.

What he has discovered is that an expensive amplified antenna did not perform as well in his apartment as a much cheaper HDTV UHF/VHF antenna. He uses an HDTV "silver sensor" antenna that costs around $35, versus $50 or more for an antenna with a signal amplifier. And he says that he not only gets more TV channels than he did with analog, but that the TV channels he is getting are much better quality in high definition and with surround sound.

A silver sensor HDTV antenna from Philips that is similar to the one CNET editor Matthew Moskovciak uses. CNET

But he adds that everyone's experience is different, and that some people living in a different part of the city or even someone in his own neighborhood or building whose apartment is facing a different direction could have an easier or a harder time getting a signal with the same equipment.

So what are consumers to do? Here are a few tips that can be used to help get you started setting up your antenna for digital reception.

•&nbsp Make sure you are using an antenna that supports UHF and VHF.

•&nbsp Move your antenna closer to a window. Often it's much easier to get reception from the window.

•&nbsp Point the antenna in the direction where you know local TV stations are broadcasting. You may have to adjust the antenna for different channels.

•&nbsp Rescan your digital converter box or tuner to find the channels in case the broadcaster has moved them.

•&nbsp If you're still unable to get a signal, try a new antenna. Moskovciak recommends not buying the most expensive antenna first. Instead, he says to work your way up, trying different antennas to see which one works best. Often a less expensive antenna may work better than a more expensive one. Best Buy has a 30-day return policy, so try as many antennas as you want, and return the ones that you don't need.

"It's definitely not easy to set this up perfectly," Moskovciak said. "I've spent a lot of time getting mine set up. I have my antenna taped to the wall and pointing toward the transmitters. But I really don't watch TV all that much, so I can't justify spending another $50 a month on cable."