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Stations Don’t Want to Wait

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

While a delay in the nationwide transition from analog to digital television signals might help viewers who are still trying to sort out their receivers, the switch to a June date could force even further belt-tightening on the local station side, imposing extra costs and putting jobs at risk.
Nine out of 10 station managers interviewed by TelevisionWeek said they oppose the delay, putting them on the side of Republican legislators and some advocacy groups who say sticking with the original Feb. 17 date would at least cut short the discomfort that will attend the switch.
President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 8 urged lawmakers to postpone the digital transition date, fearful that some viewers would be left in the dark on the switch date after Feb. 17. Last week, legislation was introduced to push the date to June 12.
That threw into havoc the plans of station managers, who hadn’t counted on perhaps having to maintain both an analog and a digital signal for an extra four months. The change has made budgeting in a recession-tinged 2009 even more challenging.
“We are not in favor of a delay,” said Mark Metzger, general manager of KEVU-TV and KLSR-TV in Eugene, Ore. “It costs an extra $5,000 a month to keep [a dual digital and analog signal] going as is. That’s in electricity costs alone.”
Mr. Metzger said his market has done four digital tests already with few calls from viewers, indicating the transition should go smoothly in Eugene.
Beyond the electricity costs of broadcasting two signals, stations now may face a new round of costs—in both cash and labor—of telling audiences about the new date.
Dan Modisett, general manager of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., said his station has already put forth a lot of effort to inform people about the digital switch. A delay rewards consumers who didn’t pay attention to digital-switch public service announcements the first time, he said.
“Moving the date would take away some of the sense of urgency, as procrastinators would hope for another delay,” he said.
Mr. Modisett said he believes there is going to be a mad scramble right before the digital switch—whether it takes place Feb. 17 or June 12.
He said the situation reminds him of college, where some people study in advance of their final exams, while others cram the night before.
Many managers lamented that their stations spent time, money and man-hours to get transmitters ready, inform viewers and troubleshoot, only to have the rug pulled out right before the payoff.
And now they literally have to pay for it.
One station manager who declined to be identified likened the situation to selling a house, only to have the buyer back out at the last minute.
“Now you have to pay the mortgage and utilities on both houses for the next four months,” he said.
General manager Warren Fiihr of WSLS-TV in Roanoke-Lynchburg, Va., said the power costs for his station would run $3,500 a month for a dual signal.
With a delay, Mr. Fiihr said he’ll have to find some way to make up the difference.
“I don’t have $3,500 of fluff in my budget,” he said. “I don’t know where that money is going to come from.”
One unpalatable alternative, Mr. Fiihr said, would be to set the transmitters to half-power. That would reduce electricity costs, but would end up decreasing his station’s coverage area by 10% to 15%.
He said stations might have to resort to staff cuts to compensate for the unexpected costs.
Mr. Fiihr said the government should help subsidize the costs for stations that have to broadcast dual signals because of the delay.
While legislators appear ready to throw money at the problem, proposing additional funds for to provide $40 coupons to consumers to buy DTV converter boxes, they haven’t made any move to ease the pain stations feel because of a delay.
Corrected call letters in 16th graf at 3:35 p.m.

98 Comments

  1. At last; a voice of reason in all this whining about the digital change.
    And about those coupons: Did it ever occur to the complainers that you can go out TODAY and buy a converter without a coupon?
    A lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble for this changeover; so what about us? Do we all have to be inconvenienced for the incompetent few?

  2. For our station we’re faced with the unanticipated high electric bills as well as contiunued operation of a problematic transmitter which would have been turned off after 2/17 when we change frequencies.
    But if there is up-side… many of our viewers are faced with an antenna upgrade and at least now they won’t be on their roof in a snow storm.

  3. I agree with the sentiments expressed above and hope the 2/17/09 date holds. Warren Fiihr is at WSLS, by the way, the Media General-owned NBC affiliate in Roanoke-Lynchburg.
    You currently have it incorrectly shown as WLSL above. Given the difficulty of spelling Warren’s last name (and MINE!), I’m amused that you got that part right and not the call letters.

  4. I suggest that if the US Government wants to keep analog TV on their after 2/17/2009 that they pay stations for the expenses in doing so. If they have to pay the cost, then perhaps they’ll understand the issue from the broadaster’s side.

  5. Sounds like a lot of TV station managers want to continue passing the costs to the public for their industry conspiracy to provide us with a better signal. It is not as if we all only have 1 or 2 TV in the house (does anyone else have more than 2 children who have separate sets to parents). Nobody said that many of us will have to buy digital antennas to get a cable or satellite quality signal if we are not already paying for FREE LOCAL TV that way. It is really fluff to say a TV station could not afford a $3,500 electric bill for 4 months (about $14K) and that is why they would have to fire people. Give us a break? It lost all creditability for such a statement by TV stations.

  6. Reply to “starrborder” wake up and smell the recession! TV stations were already laying off employees in 2008. Congress got us all into this mess, let them honor their promise to issue the DTV Coupons. Why did they issue coupons to cable households before making sure all antenna households were covered?
    By the way, it was the Democrats in Congress that caused the whole mortgage disaster and currrent resession!
    cfb

  7. Hey “starborder”, if you were paying any attention at all you’d know that it was not broadcasters who came up with an “industry conspirarcy to provide us with a better signal” – it was (guess who?) Congress who saw a quick way to grab millions of dollars by auctioning off the broadcasters analog spectrum. The digital picture won’t help many of us to raise advertising rates or to gain bigger audiences but we still had to shell-out millions (per station) to meet the governments demands. The upside for the consumer is that much-improved picture and sound quality will be available for very little (if any) costs. Send your complaints to your congressperson and senators – don’t lay the at the feet of broadcasters.

  8. The transition from analog to digital TV has been going on for almost 12 years (the first DTV broadcast stations lit up in 1997). It has been discussed, debated, argued against, codified, and delayed once already (the original analog cutoff date was January 1, 2007) during the intervening years.
    The modulation system adopted, VSB, evolved nicely from a “wish and a prayer” for early set-top boxes to essentially “plug and play” for most reception locations. All new TVs have DTV tuners built-in by law. Converter boxes, even without coupons, are inexpensive – less than a cell phone, and there’s no subscription or service plan that goes with them.
    How much longer does this transition need to take effect? Admittedly, Congress and the NTIA screwed up the DTV Converter Box Coupon Program by underestimating the demand for coupons, and also overestimating how many each household would actually use (about one of every two mailed out, to date). This has left a large pool of unused coupons out there – when they expire, more cash is available for the coupon program (about 2 million requests are currently wait-listed.
    And perhaps February 17 – a date chosen by Congress so that it wouldn’t interfere with the Super Bowl – wasn’t the best choice for a cut-off date. Lots of folks still haven’t upgraded outdoor antennas in colder parts of the U.S.
    Even so, it’s ridiculous to force broadcasters to continue operating two TV transmitters at the same time, particularly in a down economy when every dollar counts.
    The transition has been publicized in print, on the Web, and on TV for nearly a year now. There’s been plenty of advance notice. I suspect some procrastinators would still complain even if the date was pushed back another 10 years.
    We got past Y2K nicely, and that could have been a disaster of worldwide proportions. We’ll get past 2/17/09 just fine. Yes, there will be service outages, and plenty of complaints. But the new DTV system works as well as it’s ever going to work.
    People just need to get with the program. Ask your neighbors and friends if they have unused converter box coupons they’re willing to give away. If you have extra coupons, why not buy a converter box as a gift for someone who is having trouble with the coupon ordering process, or is intimidated by it?
    Better yet, why not help that person with the installation? You may find their “great” analog TV picture is actually pretty snowy and comes from a barely-functioning set of rabbit ears or a rusted-out rooftop or attic antenna. (I found both instances.)
    It is amazing to see the look on these folks’ faces when they see digital TV for the first time. Well worth the effort.

  9. Sorry. Just lost my job late last year. Cannot afford a converter box, much less new TV sets for the house. Might lose the house anyway. Don’t watch network TV anymore because it has been dummied down so much. Will get local news from Web sites and radio. Guess that has it covered. They can stick to the Feb deadline. Our house just won’t be watching local TV anymore.

  10. Agreed, we have put our viewers and staff through enough. Let’s move on. We are ready so are about 90% of our audience. Those who are not ready not will not be ready even if they move the date to June, then what. We as an indusry should need to stand up to the new administration and let them know how we feel.
    Add additional funding to the converter box program and call it a day.

  11. A question from a “civilian”: If a station is already broadcasting an ATSC signal, as all in my area seem to be, is there anything that prevents them from simply turning off the old analog signal? Either today, or on 2/17, whether or not congress extends the date? In other words, is the cutover date merely the date that they must stop broadcasting analog, or are they additionally required to keep broadcasting analog until then? If they can go dark early, why not do it? A station that did so would obviously have a competitive disadvantage against stations that chose not to go dark early, but by all accounts it sounds like the number of viewers they would lose would be small. Additionally, the viewers lost would presumably be among the least desirable demographic. Could the money lost in this scenario be less than the cost of keeping both transmitters active?

  12. I agree with sticking to the deadline. Is receiving free TV signals an unknown right all US citizens have? I wasn’t aware of this right. I didn’t get a coupon when I paid for my first TV, nor my second or third, etc. I just bought it so I could watch TV. I didn’t ask the government to pay for my TV or even a part of it. If people aren’t paying attention or not prepared, they probably don’t care about watching TV that much. Just pull the plug on analog already. I believe a majority is prepared. The majority is what counts.

  13. The switch could be delayed for an eon and there will still be people who aren’t prepared and won’t know – or act even if they know – until the TV goes dark; and it’s the same people who aren’t ready today.

  14. It looks like one of my earlier questions is answered: apparently two stations in St. Louis have shut down their analog transmitters in the last few days. I wonder how many more might consider this if the deadline is extended.

  15. I have provided technicial services to the broadcast industry for many years and my take on the DTV change over is to stick with the schedule. The people that are not inform are not watching TV or reading the news paper. The longer that we delay this, the more confusion there will be. In the case of news emergencies, there is always radio, which most people rely on in the areas of disaster.
    This delay is costly for most stations no only the cost for dual equipment operations but tower and antenna reconfiguration for the re-locations and removal of equipment. Some of these stations have agreements in place with tower crews to start the work immediately and others have tower building rental contracts in place that will terminate at some convient period after Feb. 17th.
    All that I can conclude is, please lets get on with the scheduled program and plan for future business to move the economy forward.
    ED

  16. Some stations are not properly sending out caption data on their digital channels. When the transition occurs, deaf and hard of hearing people could be left without usable captions on the only remaining channel, whereas captions on the analog channel may be fine. For example, see the videos of accumulating digital captions provided by two different stations in the Washington, DC area for a brand new Samsung HDTV. (Both stations had been advised of caption problems in the past.) Under FCC Chair Martin’s leadership, the FCC had not taken sufficient action to ensure that stations will provide synchronized and intact digital captions on the digital channels. Even now, I still can’t see digital captions from some stations on my Sharp HDTV because the stations never addressed the problems.

  17. Dana
    We had some stations that were transmitting captions, but only in the older Line 21 format; if you tried setting your TV to display the newer digital captions (the ones with all the options for fonts and colors and transparent backgrounds) you’d get nothing, but if you went back to the clunky older style analog captions they’d show up just fine. It was ugly and annoying, but it did mean you could at least see the captions. You might try this on your Sharp.
    Agree that captioning hasn’t been very well implemented a lot of the time (to say nothing of the whole upconverting/HDMI mess on the DVD side).

  18. Poor broadcasters. Had a license to print money for years and spent like drunken sailors on doodads and gizmos. Then, HDTV came along and they were mandated to spread the word to their viewers. “Change is coming.” (sound familiar??) And the government got cold feet about perhaps taking the last thing some of us poor slobs have…our opiate…TV. The specter of Americans storming DC with torches when their TV’s went dead was too scary a proposition for them, so the Feds blinked. Like with bailouts and so much more our gutless politicians took the politically expedient approach. Delay. Delay. Delay. And now the poor TV station operators (HAH!) now have to face fiscal responsibility and most are cutting staff at a ridiculous rate. More cuts due to higher power bills. If they had banked some of their ill-gotten obscene profits over the years they might have the dough to ride out the rough times ahead. Instead loyal staffs are being laid to waste for station’s inabilities to face the current economic downturn. With broadcast networks flying towards cheap (awful) reality programming and their numbers already in steep decline, most stations don’t realize they are as good as dead. Irrelavant. Out of step. Unnecessary. R.I.P. Broadcast TV. Viva cable and Internet.

  19. What was learned about digital broadcast television from the September 2008 experiment to shut off analog TV in Wilmington, NC for ever, was that coverage of most station’s digital signal falls well short of replicating that of its analog signal. Too many living on the fringe of analog reception there have no reception of digital at all. I hear that the lawyers at the FCC messed up the math. I remember when the FCC employed engineers to do engineering.
    So what now? I say permit the Feb 17, 2009 transition to happen but have one station in every TV market keep its analog running until June 12. Pick the station based on which one will cause the least interference and ask the other stations there to split the cost of that guy’s analog electric bill – and hope that station broadcasts in your spoken language. Juan

  20. More on early analog shutdown, from a story in today’s TVWeek (wouldn’t this info have been apropos for the original story?):

    The request to delay the national changeover comes as a number of the nation’s 1,800 stations are quietly making the switch to digital. The Federal Communications Commission said tonight that 133 TV stations have already switched to digital-only signals, with another 67 set to switch before Feb. 17 and 93 to switch at midnight Feb. 17, whatever happens with the delay legislation.

  21. Too late to complain anymore … Senate and House passed bill to delay DTV transition date. The President is expected to sign the bill into law. Many stations will probably pull the analog plug on 2/17 anyway. As for me – nearest TV tower is 65 miles away. Snowy analog signals from rooftop antenna translate to no DTV signal at all due to cliff effect. Lots of folks in fringe areas are going to have to buy massively huge TV antennas.
    To bn8024: how come you can’t afford a converter box but you can afford a subscription to your Internet Service Provider?

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