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DTV: Stations Try to Fill Digital Subchannels

Subchannels Need Programming, Offer Ad Opportunities

The country’s switchover from analog to digital broadcast signals brings with it a need for stations to program the digital subchannels created in the bandwidth space formerly occupied by their analog signals.

Fortunately for stations, there are a lot of choices on the programming menu.

Many stations have already opted for weather reports, movies and classic television shows to occupy the additional programming real estate created with digital subchannels, which take up much less space than analog channels. Some station groups already are carrying fresh content on their digital tiers.

Click here for a list of DTV Subchannel Offerings.

Stations aren’t required to program their subchannels, however. Some, like the CBS-owned group, have not yet decided what to air on the digital subchannels. Others, such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group, have launched channels in only a few markets.

Digital subchannels offer stations the opportunity to wring additional revenue from existing assets. Given the slumping economy, broadcasters are eager to extract revenue wherever they can, and new channels represent more advertising inventory to sell.

On the flip side, most subchannels aren’t profitable yet, and they’re one more thing for already busy station managers to manage.

A handful of new digital networks are landing deals with local broadcasters. LATV is a Hispanic-themed bilingual channel targeted to the 18- to 34-year-old demographic with music, lifestyle and entertainment programming. Retro Television Network programs shows such as “Greatest American Hero,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Quincy, M.E.,” and is carried in markets including San Francisco, St. Louis, Denver, Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta.

There’s also My Family TV, offering movies, comedy, sports, travel, children’s and healthy living programming. The MGM-Weigel Broadcasting digital channel THIS TV also is gaining traction with broadcasters with its lineup of old movies and TV shows.

Broadcasters don’t have to search far and wide for programming because digital programmers are eager to pitch their fare to stations, said Thom Postema, general manager for Southeastern Media Holdings’ Fox affiliate WSFX-TV in Wilmington, N.C. “They come to you. We’ve been pitched on real estate channels, NASCAR channels, economy channels,” he said.

WSFX first opted to run The Tube Music Network, a 24-hour music video channel that has since shuttered operations due to financial constraints. “It didn’t do too well, so we pulled it,” he said.

He’s replacing it with THIS TV starting today. That decision makes better economic sense because WSFX can air movies from THIS TV on its main channel as well. “We can use the movies to fill our gaps,” he said. “It’s also a good thing to have one more thing to sell to advertisers, and some movies have achieved a 2 or 3 rating, which is good for Wilmington.”

John Rafferty is the general manager of Post-Newsweek-owned independent station WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., which runs LATV on the digital tier. The group also carries LATV in Orlando, Miami, San Antonio and other markets. Post-Newsweek is an investor in the network, which counts 35 affiliation agreements across the country in 20 of the top 25 Hispanic television markets. It’s also carried on basic cable in some markets.

“We have a decent Hispanic population, and it’s turnkey. It’s easy and young, cool programming,” Mr. Rafferty said. The channel also helps attract a new crop of advertisers who can’t afford to buy spots on the main channel, he said.

The LATV audience isn’t big yet, but WJXT doesn’t pay to carry the programming, he said. “The appetite is not there yet, and the revenue stream clearly isn’t there right now. But it’s a new opportunity, and if you can find the right audience with the right programming, it works,” he said.

The business model for digital subchannels is unproven, but that’s because the business is new, said Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which carries MyNetworkTV and THIS TV in a few markets.

“Perhaps the model for digital subchannels is in TV’s early history,” Mr. Parks said. “The infant TV networks leveraged content and ideas from their dominant radio network business to create content and distribution for early TV, so as homes began buying TV sets the audience grew.

“Today we kind of have the same situation with digital. Initially there was very little penetration. As more people buy digital sets, and have access to the subchannels, perhaps the audience will grow. If we have the right content and get enough eyeballs, then it will start to make some money.”

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