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With DTV Delay a Done Deal, Stations Debate When to Switch

Feb 8, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The congressional decision to postpone to June the switch to digital television has placed a crucial decision in the hands of stations: Delay or proceed?
If stations go forward and switch to digital broadcast signals on the original Feb. 17 date, they may leave unprepared viewers in the dark.
For TVWeek’s comprehensive coverage of the digital television transition, visit the DTV Switch Navigator page.
But waiting until June 12 could cost stations hundreds of thousands of dollars, without any guarantee that audiences will be much better prepared for the DTV switch.
Stations need to decide quickly whether they’ll go ahead with the switch or wait, as the Federal Communications Commission has put a Feb. 9 deadline on broadcasters seeking to transition early.
That has station managers balancing three options: Switch to digital-only signals early; run dual digital and analog broadcasts until June; or wait until the June date. Most stations are running dual signals, and few, if any, plan to run analog-only until the new deadline.
All the options carry downside potential, particularly on the cost side.
Mike Burgess, general manager of KOB-TV in Albuquerque, is running dual signals and will make the switch to digital in June. He said the electricity costs for his four statewide analog transmitters run about $20,000 a month.
The Albuquerque-Santa Fe market, the 44th largest in the nation, was ranked No. 1 in terms of households unready for the digital transition by Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen estimated 12.6% of the market was “completely unready,” with 6% “partially ready.”
Countrywide, 5.1% of viewers are unprepared.
Coupled with engineering costs and upkeep of the transmitters, he’s looking at $100,000 in unbudgeted costs because of the delay until June.
His station, owned by Hubbard Holdings, isn’t alone.
Nationally, the CBS, Fox, NBC, Telemundo and ABC owned-and-operated stations have agreed to keep both analog and digital signals running until June.
Stations already are running on razor-thin budgets, as the economic downturn has dried up local advertising revenues. The transition also has strained resources, as stations have had to comply with federal requirements by running public service announcements, meeting with viewers and purchasing and installing new equipment.
Asked where he sees an opportunity to make up the additional costs, Mr. Burgess laughed and said, “I don’t.”
“I don’t think we’re going to make it up,” he said. “We’re just going to eat it.”
Stations that want to avoid the cost of running dual signals can ask the FCC for permission to switch to digital early, but there’s no guarantee of FCC approval, according to the agency’s acting chairman, Michael Copps.
Mr. Copps said last week that the FCC will look closely at whether consumers would be hurt by an early switch, and that requests that don’t serve the public interest would be rejected.
National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr told an FCC meeting last week that the NAB doesn’t yet know how many stations will switch early.
Mr. Burgess, like many station managers, said he’s disappointed with the postponement of the transition because procrastinators in the audience who didn’t prepare for DTV will still procrastinate.
“If [viewers] weren’t ready after two and a half years’ worth of promotion,” he said, “I’m not sure another four months is going to make that big a difference.”
General managers across the country have said they feel the same way, adding they had interpreted the “hard date” of Feb. 17 as just that: immovable.
Among those GMs who were disappointed in the delay ruling were general managers in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, the markets that sit at No. 2 and No. 4 on Nielsen’s list of unprepared markets.
Roger Bare, general manager at Tribune-owned KIAH-TV in Houston, said his market will run dual signals until June 12.
To defray costs, Mr. Bare said one option would be to set analog transmitters to half-power, which could cut signals to some viewers in the outlying areas of the market.
In some markets, both big and small, some station owners want to throw the switch to digital-only early and deal with the fallout as it arises. While that kind of outreach may be a burden, the strategy avoids the costs of paying to keep analog equipment online.
Some GMs have said they’re looking to avoid consumer confusion by sticking to the Feb. 17 conversion date. Either way, the decision to push back the transition date will create a patchwork of analog and digital signals in some markets.
Stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the U.S.’ 87th-largest market, announced Wednesday that they will stick to their original plan for the digital television transition.
“The stations in this market have done an outstanding job of educating the public to this conversion and that it would occur on Feb. 17,” said Kim Leer, station manager at Quincy Newspaper-owned KWWL.
But that optimism isn’t shared by all Iowa broadcasters. Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television, said his stations will continue to run both digital and analog signals until June.
“My experience is that too many over-the-air viewers are either entirely unprepared or they have tried unsuccessfully to receive service and need to take additional steps, many of which involve working on outdoor receive systems,” Mr. Hayes said.
Proponents of the delay have said the elderly are among the groups least prepared for the transition. The prospect of that population installing a new digital antenna during the winter is a recipe for disaster.
“February is not the best time of the year to work outside on the roof,” Mr. Hayes said.
He said his channel may be the only analog signal in certain Iowa markets.
“We’re all about service to the viewers, and the delay provides us with more time to help as many viewers as we can get ready,” he said. “For us, the only downside is the power bill.”

8 Comments

  1. The delay is a costly mistake. It will cause a lot of trouble for many and will solve problems for very few. Perhaps all analog transmissions should have large, obnoxious text warning of the new shutoff date overlayed continuously on the picture. Some people just aren’t going to do anything unless the current situation is made uncomfortable. Cutting analog power in half is another great idea. If it were technically easy to do, I think the analog power should be reduced a little every week.

  2. In response to “Dave”, and all the other people who share his less-than-charitable attitude, I remind you: These are public airwaves, and the ability to use them for broadcast is a privilege enjoyed by those who operate the stations, not a right. These stations are legally obligated to operate in the public interest.
    Sure, one could argue that the freed-up spectrum from 52 to 69 will benefit public safety; that’s impossible to deny. But it’s a balancing act, far from a slam-dunk demanding the death of analog NOW, NOW, NOW.
    I point out the logic of the people at WBNS-10 in Columbus, OH; they decided to maintain analog as a public service during the waning days of winter, in case another big storm blew into the area. Both the huge Sept. 2008 windstorm and the March 2008 snowstorm knocked out power for many thousands, and analog broadcasts are essential for those not ready for digital (indeed, those WITH digital could be cut off, without battery powered digital TVs!).

  3. Broadcasting in the public interest?!
    I think that ideal went away long before digital TV was even a thought.
    (imho) Dan

  4. This broad brush that everyone who isn’t ready for digital reception is a procrastinator does a terrible disservice to the many people who have made an effort and are still not receving service. I have personally spoken to hundreds of Iowans that have their converter boxes installed and are only now discovering that their VHF only antennas don’t work for the UHF digital services that are available. Or that their indoor antennas that provided a noisy but watchable signal for analog don’t provide any service for digital. For many of these folks, television is their connection to the outside world and they should be able to count on it as they always have without being forced into a position where they have to subscribe to cable or satellite.
    Sarcasm aside, broadcasting is supposed to be in the public interest and not all of us just do the minimum to meet the FCC rules so don’t paint us with the same brush either.

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