Mixed signals

For a good time, call the Bee’s audience development department.

For a good time, call the Bee’s audience development department.

Stan Lemkuil is one of the last of the free TV guys. The longtime Sacramento artist and entertainer (he once made a bid for Guinness World Records’ loudest man in the world, but that’s another story) still knows his way around a rotary antenna, or a pair of rabbit ears. He’s got no cable connection or satellite dish. He prefers TV the way God made it—free.

But free TV has become a strange and sinister place since the digital transition earlier this year. The new dial includes all the familiar channels, like 3, 6 and 10, but also a host of digital “subchannels,” like 6.3 and 40.2.

The subchannels are the result of digital-compression technology that allows broadcasters to slice one channel into two, three or even more channels, and all sorts of new fantastic (or fantastically lame) programming.

The subchannels have become something of a sick obsession with this reporter (see “Don’t believe the hype”; SN&R Feature Story; October 9, 2008; and “This is stupid,” SN&R Bites, March 26). “The most interesting to me is 58.2,” said Lemkuil. That’s the local version of This TV, a repository of old movies and vintage TV gems like the old Bat Masterson Western series. You can’t get it on cable in Sacramento, but you can get it if you have an antenna and a digital conversion box. In other words, only if you’re wired for free TV.

The problem is none of the new digital subchannels are listed in The Sacramento Bee’s TV guide. It’s as though they don’t exist.

“They want to wait and see how it shakes out,” explained Bee spokeswoman Pam Dinsmore, adding that space is tight in the TV book. “They want to see what stays and what goes. If some of these subchannels get really popular, I’m sure they would add them.”

But Lemkuil says no one will know about the new programs and the new channels if they aren’t listed, so they’ll never catch on.

“It’s a Catch-22. And they’re kind of figuring the public will deal with it themselves.”

The missing listings are just some of the many problems that Lemkuil chalks up to the “destruction of free TV.”

“The whole thing was engineered on purpose to piss people off,” he says.

Bites can see it. If people are mad enough, they’ll just buy cable. And then, Bites figures, what’s left of the public’s broadcast spectrum can be sold off to the phone and Wi-Fi companies. And free TV? It’s ready to ride into the sunset.

Not to pick on the Bee. Well, OK, to pick on the Bee: Joe Leonard has been a Bee subscriber for 40 years and recently needed to make some changes to his subscription.

He spotted an advertisement in the Bee’s Sunday business section, letting Bee customers know about a new service called EasyPay, an automatic billing feature.

So Leonard called the number on the ad. A breathy woman’s voice came on the line, asking, “Up for some exciting talk?” Then the voice instructed him to call another number, which he did, only to be greeted by another, even breathier, come-on: “Hey there, sexy guy. Welcome to a new exciting way to go live, one-on-one with hot horny girls waiting to talk to you.”

Leonard declined to enter his credit-card number at that time, and chose instead to look up the Bee’s circulation department in the phone book. They promptly resolved his issue, without a lot of exciting talk.

Dan Schaub, the Bee’s VP for audience development and membership services told Bites that, “Unfortunately, the number was transposed and we fixed it immediately.” He added that the Bee had received no calls about the salacious message. So either no subscribers noticed, or none minded.