Cable Helps Stations Leave Analog Behind

Stations begin asking FCC for right to turn off analog transmission

A northern-Virginia public-TV station that serves the Washington, D.C., market is hoping the FCC will give it permission to cease analog operations in September as it transitions to over-the-air digital. According to WNVT(TV) General Manager Fred Thomas, with three other public stations serving the market, the move to digital transmission can be completed without fear of disenfranchising PBS viewers.

WNVT(TV) Goldvein, Va., is one of only five public-TV stations in the country not affiliated with PBS (another, WNVC(TV) Fairfax, Va., is also owned by Central Virginia Educational Telecommunications).

The two CVET stations are non-commercial alternative stations, with WNVC programming multicultural news, foreign films and soccer while WNVT offers educational programming and original African-American content and world-music programming.

Thomas believes that the station can turn off analog because the areas where the station has most of its viewers—the District of Columbia and southern Maryland—have a cable penetration north of 75%. Also, the programming is geared for younger viewers, who "don't know broadcast from anything," he says. "They grew up with cable, and that is at least a piece of our argument."

The station has already turned the analog signal off because its tower could not accommodate both the analog and digital transmission gear. Thomas says the station has basically been a cablecaster for the past two months while it waits out the FCC's decision. He says the station hopes to be on-air with the digital signal by mid September.

If the station's request is turned down, it will build out an analog facility, something Thomas doesn't want to do: "We don't have the money to do both analog and digital broadcasts." It would cost $500,000 to be re-outfit for analog broadcasts. The station's annual budget is only $2 million, and the costs would be too high, he says, especially when the analog signal may be turned off in five or six years.

Dick Bodorff, a partner with Washington law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding, who made the FCC filing for the station, expects that the FCC will allow the move to digital only. The commission previously granted WWAC(TV) Atlantic City, N.J., the right to turn off its analog signal, and a station in California also has made the move.

"The FCC is concerned that turning off analog means people would lose access to the signal," says Bodorff. "For WNVT, the Nielsen numbers show that the off-air viewership is quite small and the company would save a lot of money by not needing dual transmission plants."

The KNVT decision comes only a few months after the FCC gave permission to KVMD(TV) Twentynine Palms, Calif., to stop analog broadcasts. The commercial station (which isn't in the 700 MHz band) had slightly different arguments, but the central reason is the same: The small number of off-air viewers doesn't justify the costs.

Very few stations, particularly commercial, are likely to find the shutoff of analog signals attractive. Barry Friedman, a partner with Washington law firm Thombson Hine who represented KVMD, points out, "Abandoning analog often doesn't work because there is a PR issue about signal availability. And there are only a few stations that would feel no material impact if they ceased analog broadcasts."


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