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Fuzzy picture may bug viewers of UPN shows

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Watching snow fall might be nice way to spend a lazy winter afternoon, but snowy reception is not what most people want to see on their televisions.

Yet that's what greets TV viewers on certain channels. Most recently I've fielded complaints from some viewers who tune to WNPA, Pittsburgh's UPN affiliate, where they encounter a pixelated blizzard.

It was easy to ignore fuzzy reception on Channel 19 before because the channel had little worth watching. Now that UPN has swiped "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Roswell" from The WB for this fall, there will soon be reason to tune in. And who knows? Maybe the new "Star Trek" series, "Enterprise," will be better than "Voyager." Miracles can happen.

But will it do any good if we can't see them? I've received complaints from cable subscribers -- on AT&T and Adelphia -- all over the region: Mt. Lebanon, Ross, Reserve, Indiana, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Downtown. There have also been complaints from nonsubscribers who can't get WNPA over the air.

Trying to figure out the cause of the problem is tricky because I've also seen WNPA come in clearly on Adelphia and on Armstrong cable systems. At my own home (on AT&T), WNPA's reception was cruddy a week ago, but was much improved when I checked it this week.

For viewers using antennas, reception problems may be connected to the location of WNPA's transmitter, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh atop Laurel Mountain. Terrain may make it difficult to get the Channel 19 signal in some areas. Pointing an antenna east could help.

For cable subscribers, there's no simple answer to reception trouble, whether it's on WNPA or another channel.

Scott Bogdan, a technical expert with AT&T Broadband, explained that poor reception is sometimes caused by ingress, pollution of the cable signal by other signals floating through -- paging systems, cellular phones, AM and FM radio and even over-the-air TV signals.

Ingress can happen when there's a bad connection inside or outside the home. Cable customers should check that the cable wires are securely connected to their TV sets, but the problem could also be caused by a cut piece of cable outside your home.

The tuner in a cable-ready TV may also be to blame, Bogdan said. If the internal tuner isn't strong enough, external signals can penetrate it and cause interference.

Ingress typically causes lines in the screen, Bogdan said. A snowy picture is more often caused by a poor signal. In either case, he said, a cable company can correct the problem "nine times out of 10." If the TV tuner is allowing signals to seep in, Bogdan recommended a cable box with a sturdier tuner.

In the case of WNPA, he said, the channel location is "near a lot of cellular-type traffic," which might interfere with reception, although AT&T hasn't received a rash of complaints about it.

Adelphia spokesman Frank Polito had a similar explanation. On Adelphia systems in the South Hills, WNPA is on cable channel 4, which can be disrupted by ingress from the signal of WTAE, over-the-air Channel 4. Other broadcast channels may also affect their corresponding cable channel numbers, and Polito said atmospheric conditions can sometimes vary the amount of distortion in the on-screen picture.

Dan Garfinkel, AT&T's executive director of communications, said the company can't diagnose reception problems from its headquarters and customers need to call for service (800-532-3779 or check your bill for a local phone number). Adelphia customers should call 800-892-7300 for service.

Viewers concerned about WNPA in particular will have to schedule those service calls soon (unless they opt for satellite TV). UPN is expected to launch new episodes of some series in August with two-hour premieres of "Buffy" (designed to acquaint new viewers with the show) and "Enterprise."

Meanwhile, The WB will air "Buffy" reruns at 9 p.m. Wednesday beginning June 6. On June 4, "Angel" reruns move to 9 p.m. Monday, the show's new time slot.

IS BUFFY DEAD? Tuesday's season finale was quite a shocker, as Buffy sacrificed herself to save the world. Taking a cue from Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in "Alien 3," Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) did a swan dive off a tower, fulfilling the prophecy of the first Slayer, who only a few weeks ago told her, "Death is your gift."

It was a spectacular hour of television filled with red herrings (Xander looked as if he was marked for death the minute he proposed marriage to Anya), action, humor and, ultimately, love, as Buffy took the place of her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg, an excellent addition to the cast), dying in order to turn back the forces of evil.

Of course, Buffy's death raises the question: What happens when the show moves from The WB to UPN this fall? Did UPN buy damaged goods, a Buffy-less "Buffy"?

Even UPN executives aren't that dumb.

"I warned them Buffy would be slightly dead," said Joss Whedon, the show's creator who wrote and directed this week's episode. "They were actually really excited, because rebirth is kind of the theme they're going for; they want to re-create the image of their network. It's very fitting Buffy would be coming back from the dead."

Whedon said it won't be an alternate-universe Buffy who is resurrected, it will be the same ol' Buffy. Mostly.

"Obviously some things you don't mess with and some things you constantly mess with. Our show is all about change and growth and living life and all it puts you through, but she's going to be Buffy. I like Buffy," Whedon said. "I'm not saying it will be smooth, go well and be exactly the way you remember her, but it will be Buffy."

And yes, Buffy, as played by Gellar, will be in the first episode of the series when it premieres on UPN.

As for crossovers with "Angel," Whedon said none are planned, although after this week's episode where Angel found out Buffy died, her death will be mentioned.

"We have a spectacular non-crossover planned, and I will not explain what that means," Whedon said cryptically.

He's threatening to do a musical episode of "Buffy" next season, and, as always, "Buffy" will fight a "big bad" evil presence and there will be an overriding theme for the year.

"The theme for next season is growing up and entering the grown-up world, dealing with jobs, being engaged, other problems," Whedon said.

Willow and Tara will remain in college, but not Buffy.

"She's dead," he said. "She's not enrolled next year."

MEDIA LITERACY: "Mind Over Media: Helping Kids Get the Message," a one-hour special designed to encourage media literacy among children, will air Saturday at 1 p.m. on Court TV. The program is co-produced by the National Education Association.

Media literacy instruction helps children and teens recognize forms of manipulation in the media and distinguish between positive and negative images.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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