Stations in mood for multicasting

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Multicasting means different things to different people. To the Internet cognoscenti who coined the term, it means sending data to a select group of people.
For TV, the term often tends to describe digital television program multiplexing: transmitting two or more signals at the same time on the same carrier frequency. Some stations use this take on multicasting to send programs formatted differently (high definition, standard definition) at the same time to different audiences. WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., used it last year to air four different NCAA basketball tournament games simultaneously.
For other stations, multicasting means using their digital signal to air programming from different networks.
That’s what Lamco Communications-owned WCTI-TV began doing in January. The Greenville, N.C., station simulcasts ABC and UPN programming on WCTI-DT, Channel 48.
“Our [digital TV] focus has been, `What new content can we deliver to viewers?’-not merely duplicating ABC signals but offering new choices,” explained WCTI General Manager Clay Milstead. “All the public wants to know is how to pick up `Star Trek: Voyager,’ as far as I’m concerned.”
If all goes according to plan, Cox Communications will begin carrying WCTI’s digital UPN transmission in about a month, delivering it to subscribers as another analog channel. (Cox does not provide digital set-top boxes to subscribers in this market.) To induce Cox to pick up its UPN feed, the station had to provide it with antennas, decoders, modulators and other equipment (plus installation) according to the specs Cox dictated. Both entities are still waiting for the last of the equipment to arrive.
The station has also approached the two other big cable companies in the area, Time Warner and Charter Communications, as well as smaller local providers.
Two months before WCTI’s multiplexing efforts, Holston Valley Broadcasting-owned WKPT-TV in Kingsport, Tenn., went digital to get better carriage for its UPN programming on WAPK-TV.
“We were doing this more as an insurance policy,” said General Manager George DeVault, who noted that his low-power UPN station was sometimes being picked up from almost 50 miles away. “We feared that as the UHF band becomes more full with more digital stations, interference would rise and the low-powered station would suffer.”
The station’s digital lineup is now WKPT-DT1 (ABC programming) on channel 27-1, WKPT-DT2 (UPN programming) on channel 27-2, and two audio channels, WKPT-DT3 (WKPT Radio) on channel 27-3 and WKPT-DT4-jazz/easy listening-on channel 27-4.
Adelphia is picking up the station’s UPN programming via WKPT-DT2.
“They used to pick it up on analog channel 30 from the low channel station,” Mr. DeVault said. “We provide the cable-system headends with an RCA Thomson set-top box-a tuner that will pick up analog and digital. The box, in essence, is a decoder. We have purchased antennas for some systems. Set-top boxes cost about $500. We typically buy an antenna that costs around $700. Installation costs vary. Overall it costs us or them or some combination $1,200 to $1,500.”
That’s considerably less than estimates from other stations regarding these cable inducements.
Mr. DeVault also noted that it will probably cost WKPT a few hundred thousand dollars more to get its digital signal to full power. But he insisted the benefits are worth the expense.
“We’re reaching a wider audience with a clearer, more consistent signal,” Mr. DeVault pointed out. “Cable carriage is very important, and low power does not have must-carry. If you’re not on the cable system, you’ve got a problem.”
WKPT’s competition in the tri-city area straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border has been broadcasting multiple networks since May. Lamco Communications-owned WCYB-DT in Bristol, Va., now offers programming from NBC (DT-1), The WB (DT-2) and Pax (DT-3) and a live Doppler radar feed with local news cut-ins (DT-4).
General Manager Joe Macione was in Washington last week lobbying the FCC and Congress to mandate digital tuners in all new sets and interoperability with cable systems to stretch Channel 28’s footprint beyond the 140,000 cable homes receiving its signal to date.