Can television stations get it together for the final, confusing push to digital TV? They'd better. By July 1 of next year, the FCC will require many stations in the top 100 markets to be broadcasting DTV at their maximum assigned power and others to be at least replicating their analog service. By summer 2006, smaller-market stations will be expected to pass the same tests. And if they don't? They risk losing their broadcast licenses.
Fortunately, most DTV stations appear to be making steady progress against these "maximization" and "replication" deadlines. But thorny issues surrounding the open-channel election complicate investments in high-power transmission gear, and market-specific problems continue to prevent some stations from launching even low-power DTV.
The FCC has allowed some stations to operate their digital channels on a temporary channel—it's called "special temporary authority," or "STA"—until snags are resolved.
"There are a number of difficult business decisions around not having a plan," says Emmis Communications Vice President of Engineering Marty Draper. "About four of our stations have gone on STAs with low-power facilities just because of business issues. Not having a clear path or guidance from a regulatory perspective makes it difficult to make a significant investment."
Nonetheless, 15 of its 16 stations are broadcasting DTV, along with satellite stations in Wichita, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M. The one exception is WBPG Pensacola, Fla., which hasn't yet received a digital-channel assignment from the FCC and whose analog signal is part of the higher end of the spectrum—channels 52-69—which the FCC is auctioning off to wireless operators.
"We're out of core there, as we're currently channel 55 analog. So we'll follow the repacking plan and pursue an allotment in-core," says Draper, referring to the FCC's recently approved selection process (B&C, 8/9, page 14). Later, after other stations in Pensacola pick their digital channels, Emmis will get its turn.
ABC's 10 owned stations are broadcasting DTV at least at levels meeting the National Television System Committee (NTSC) replication standard, if not at maximized power, says Dave Converse, vice president and director of engineering for ABC Owned Television Stations:
"We are in pretty good standing as far as the 'use-it-or-lose-it proposition' is concerned."
ABC has maximized DTV power at WTVG Toledo, Ohio, and WJRT Flint, Mich., and is considering maximizing power at KFSN Fresno, Calif. "Those were done late enough in the game that [WTVG and WJRT] could afford to do it," says Converse.
All 14 of NBC's owned stations and 14 of 15 Telemundo stations are currently broadcasting DTV, says Richard Westcott, vice president of station technology for NBC-owned stations. While five Telemundo DTV stations are at low power, they have "sufficient power to place a city-grade DTV signal," he adds.
Tribune is in similar shape, broadcasting DTV at all of its 26 stations and generally replicating its NTSC signal.
"We're low-power in a couple places because of interference issues or FCC licensing issues, but all DTVs are on air," says Ira Goldstone, vice president and chief technical officer, Tribune Broadcasting. "[WEWB Albany, N.Y.] is on low power while we settle interference issues, and we're not all maximized, though we're heading toward maximizing in all."
Most of the high-power infrastructure is already in place, he adds. Most stations will need to add a transmitter cabinet, but they won't have to upgrade antennas or transmission line because, with the exception of WEWB, Tribune didn't install low-power DTV equipment.
Sinclair has employed a similar DTV strategy, building out full-power–capable systems wherever possible and operating them at lower power "until there is enough content or set penetration to make turning it up worthwhile," says Vice President of Engineering and Operations Del Parks.
Fifty-six of Sinclair Broadcast Group's 62 stations are on air with DTV. Six are currently operating at high power, 18 more will go to high power by September, and five stations will boost to high power by December. Twenty-five more Sinclair stations are ready for high power and are simply running at low power using a transmitter driver.
"All we have to do is put the tube in and turn it up," says Parks.
Sinclair still has four outstanding construction-permit issues involving stations along the Canadian border in Flint, Mich., and Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, N.Y. Other markets in flux include Lexington, Ky., where Sinclair is building a new DTV tower, and Charleston, W.Va., where the station group is replacing a tower that collapsed in an ice storm in February 2003.
Media General is broadcasting full-power DTV at WFLA Tampa, Fla.; WSPA Spartanburg, S.C.; WIAT Birmingham, Ala.; WJBF Augusta, Ga.; and WNCT Greenville, N.C. The rest of its 20 stations are in the process of converting to high power, and the station group still has to upgrade towers in four or five markets to handle bigger antennas and transmission lines.
"It's primarily economic issues, the cost for doing the work," says Ardell Hill, senior vice president of broadcast operations, Media General. "But we will be starting that in 2005 and completing it in time to meet the deadline."
Media General also has six satellite stations in rural markets, such as Hattiesburg, Miss., that will wait until the NTSC sunset to "flash-cut" to DTV operations. "Because the economics are so tough at any rate," says Hill, "we applied for a waiver for those stations to stay on the channel that we currently have and then just go to digital whenever we're required to turn off analog."
Clear Channel is still dealing with DTV interference and tower issues in a few markets. In Albany, Clear Channel successfully filed to switch its DTV assignment from channel 4 to channel 7, citing impulse-noise issues. But that ruling has been challenged by WABC New York, which broadcasts on analog channel 7.
In Seattle, environmentalists have opposed the construction of a DTV tower on Orcas Island in Puget Sound. "It's a long, involved story that predates Clear Channel ownership," says Mike DeClue, senior vice president and director of engineering for Clear Channel Television. "We're just working through it."
Many DTV broadcasters have already experimented with some form of multicasting, ranging from simple local weather radar to carrying dedicated coverage of the Democratic National Convention. Some are also interested in the subscription-TV business plans being promoted by USDTV and Emmis Broadcasting.
Media General's Hill would like to see those two ventures work together. "We're evaluating both," he says. "We're very troubled that the two are at odds with each other, and we wish they could find a way to get together."
Emmis still plans for its multicasting venture to operate as a separate business from USDTV, says Emmis spokeswoman Kate Healey. The company sent an offering memo to interested groups in early June and expects formal responses by late September.