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It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and Andrew Tarpgaard is sitting on the couch in his living room, getting ready to watch TV. Remote control in hand, Tarpgaard shoots straight for WRC Channel 4. But the image that shoots back at him is troubling. The picture is snowy, and there’s a big black stripe down the left side of the screen. Between all the fuzz, Tarpgaard manages to distinguish a shape. It’s Channel 4 sportscaster George Michael.

But wait—there are two of him.

Tarpgaard treks to the TV in his bedroom, where he hopes the reception will be better. No such luck. This time he can’t even make out what’s being said. A loud buzzing sound is drowning out Michael’s voice.

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This isn’t the first time the reception has been poor. In fact, Tarpgaard says the snowy image is probably the best it’s been in the three years he’s lived at his current residence.Tarpgaard’s fuzzy TV screen wouldn’t be odd if, say, he lived beyond a mountain in West Virginia, or if his television were in a basement and had nothing but a coat hanger for an antenna. But Tarpgaard has cable. And his Glover Park apartment is less than a mile away from the Channel 4 station. In fact, Tarpgaard, along with many other owners and tenants living in his condo, has given up on tuning to Channel 4 for the news and is opting for the clearer channels such as 7, 9, and Baltimore’s Channel 11.

“Channel 11 is a Baltimore channel, so I can’t watch D.C. news, but I can watch NBC network shows like ER with no problem,” says Tarpgaard.

TV snow has fallen on Northwest cable owners for years now. Myrna Sislen, who lives even closer to WRC, in AU Park, is experiencing the same drama as Tarpgaard, and she also gets bad reception on nearby Channel 5. She has called District Cablevision on several occasions. A technician was sent to her home, but nothing was done. “The workers tell me they can’t do anything,” says Sislen. “But when I call customer service they tell me it can be fixed. So then nothing gets done.”

Ironically, Tarpgaard and Sislen live too close to the Channel 4 and Channel 5 stations. “The closer you live to the TV station’s towers, the poorer the reception will be,” says District Cablevision spokesperson Jean Davis. According to District Cablevision technicians, the strong signals coming from the stations’ towers are interfering with the cable signals—thus giving birth to the twin images of George Michael.

“It’s a big problem. It’s cutting down the benefits of cable,” says Chuck Elkins, whose home on Lowell Street is a mile away from Channel 4’s tower. Elkins doesn’t consider himself to be a fan of the tube, but soon he will be working from his home, and the television could be very useful. “I don’t even bother turning it on anymore. It’s very discouraging.”

Channel 4 knows it’s losing viewers thanks to the reception snafu. “We’re very much aware of the reception problem,” says Angela Owens, director of station communications for Channel 4. “It’s a District Cablevision problem. This situation has existed for quite some time. We’re supportive of any ideas they have. It’s to our advantage that our viewers receive clear reception. To date, they haven’t come up with a resolution.”

“These problems can be corrected,” says District Cablevision technician Earl Jones. Jones suggests that if Channels 4 and 5 moved to other channel numbers on the cable system, it would eliminate the problem. For obvious reasons, the stations don’t consider that an option.

District Cablevision, meanwhile, is planning to upgrade its system. “The result will include fiber links to Channel 4, 5, 7, and 9 that will solve this issue,”says technician Robert Jones. But the upgrade won’t see the light of day before 2001. Then, Robert Jones says, cable subscribers can rent a convertor box from District Cablevision for $3.25 a month to clear up the images.

That solution doesn’t satisfy Sislen: “They’re kidding, right? They’ll put in the cable, but if you want to see it right you’ve got to pay extra?”

Sislen thinks District Cablevision should just deduct the cost of the nonworking channels and put it toward the cost of the convertor box—an idea Davis doesn’t reject out of hand. “We want to be consumer-friendly,” she says. “If all fails and it can’t be repaired, we would be willing to work something out.”

Tarpgaard’s solution might not be hassle-free, either, but it is cheaper: “Just connect the cable to the VCR,” he says. “That’s the only way it works.” CP