In Depth

For Smaller Stations, Added Costs Trump Prestige of HD News

By Hillary Atkin

Broadcasting local news in high definition is a point of pride and a cornerstone of promotion for nearly all of the major television stations in the nation’s top markets — even as some are still working on completely converting their field ENG operations to HD.

Conversion doesn’t come cheap. The price tag for purchasing new studio and field cameras, buying new sets and graphics packages and rejiggering studio lighting can reach $700,000. Notwithstanding ad revenue being down and budgets being sliced, it’s a major investment.

That’s why as DMA rankings get higher, the number of stations that have not yet made the HD switch also increases. It’s estimated that roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of TV stations nationwide have not yet converted their local news to HD — and may not in the foreseeable future.

“The answer is pretty simple: they just can’t afford it. Most stations have a big debt service every month, and it’s hard to make large capital investments,” said
Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the recently renamed Radio Television Digital News Association (formerly RTNDA) and news director of KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia, Mo.

He said it’s not just the sputtering economy that has created a divide between station haves and have-nots when it comes to news in HD. “It’s the changing market. We’ve seen the must-view attitude to watch news at 6 or 11 p.m. decline,” Woelfel said. “TV news is not the audience draw and not the moneymaker it was. The recent economic downturn is not the reason for stations being in this predicament. It’s part of a trend, but it was already headed down.”

Many stations have put off the decision on a specific time to convert, waiting for their corporate owners to give the financial green light. “Now it’s tougher to get to because the revenue is down so much. Where stations would be putting aside money, they don’t have that coming in anymore like they did.”

Woelfel’s station is in the minority — a small-market affiliate (Columbia is ranked as the 139th DMA) that made the investment to go HD. Like the other stations that made the HD switch, along with the funding it took some advance planning. For KOMU, which has been owned by the University of Missouri for 55 years, the goal was to go HD on the opening day of the Olympics, Aug. 8, 2008.

Demand for high-definition equipment was so great at the time that while KOMU was able to take delivery of three new Sony studio cameras in 2008, the high-precision lenses for the cameras were sold out, and they had to use loaners. Several months before, the station had purchased 24 Sony EX1 field cameras and had already integrated them into its newsgathering operations.

WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md., is more typical of stations in smaller markets. The NBC affiliate, owned by Nexstar Broadcasting Group, has no plans to transmit its local newscasts in high definition. The station, which is located about 70 miles from Washington, does 3 ½ hours of news in five newscasts every weekday, with a staff of 23.

“It’s a tall order to contemplate the conversion, especially in a time when the economy is where it is,” said WHAG news director Mark Kraham. “It’s no secret that this is not the best of economic times to be making expenditures.”

The station does transmit its NBC network’s signal in HD, and many of the pieces to convert its news broadcasts to HD are in place, due to this year’s mandated digital transition, including a new transmitter. Kraham said that equipment would be just the beginning of what is needed.

“In addition to all the new equipment, we would have to convert all the links from the studio to the transmitter and remote signals from live trucks at additional expense,” Kraham said.

Just as the rollout to color from black–and-white decades ago was gradual, so goes the HD transition.

“Whenever the actual conversion takes place, I’m happy with whenever it is,” said Kraham. “There are a lot of other people in same situation. The decision of when we convert is not mine. My day-to-day decisions involve news content within our newscast, and that’s clearly my focus, to continue to provide quality news to our viewers.”

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in 25 years and I’m very willing to wait.”