The DTV rush is on

Alaska stations band together in the face of a conversion that could be a make-or-break issue for some of them

Like explorers huddling for warmth in the Alaskan wilderness, the eight TV stations in Anchorage are banding together to brave the uncharted territory of digital television in the face of daunting topography and costs.

How the digital transition gets done is a make-or-break issue for broadcasters there because the transition is expensive and they don't have the wide profit margins of some of their big-city kin.

"We have to pool resources to save every dollar. If we waste any money, it could be fatal," says Al Bramstedt, general manager of NBC affiliate KTUU-TV. Station executives predict that it will cost each around $1 million to convert their station.

They also argue that, due to the topography of the market, they need to keep their analog signal as well, something regulators feared all broadcasters would try to do.

Although the stations have been working together to develop a plan, all seven commercial stations (the one noncom has until 2003) will miss the FCC's May 1 deadline. In fact, none expect to convert before May 1, 2003.

Before they can begin the process, the broadcasters must build a new tower that will host antennas for all eight stations. Most of the stations' analog signals are transmitted from a tower in Goose Bay, across from the city. Broadcasters plan to build a tower in the middle of town, naming it after pioneer Alaskan broadcaster Augie Hiebert, and initially broadcast digital signals from there. The analog signals will continue to be transmitted from Goose Bay.

Just building a new tower is tough in Anchorage, says Sean Bradley, vice president and general manager of ABC affiliate KIMO(TV). "We have such a small opportunity to construct here because of weather, snow and darkness."

There is also the height issue. But more on that later.

CBS affiliate KTVA (TV), which was Anchorage's first TV station, in 1953, will be the first to move its analog signal to Goose Bay. Six stations, including public station KAKM(TV), will pay $200,000 to $250,000 each toward building the tower. KTVA and its LMA partner, Fox affiliate KTBY (TV), do not plan to chip in because KTVA's parent company, Alaska Broadcasting, is providing the site. Once the tower is built, the other broadcasters will pay rent.

When it comes time to return the analog signals, all the stations would move their digital signals to Goose Bay on VHF channels.

The plan gets trickier once conversion is complete. The Anchorage broadcasters, which have formed a group called the Anchorage Broadcast Television Consortium, want to keep their UHF analog channels. They need the extra frequencies to fill transmission gaps, Bramstedt says.

Anchorage is one of the country's largest geographic markets, located in a valley with mountains on one side and a massive tidal basin on the other. In addition, towers cannot be very tall there because of the high numbers of low-flying aircraft. As a result, broadcasters want to transmit their VHF digital signals to Anchorage households from the Goose Bay tower and fill in gaps using UHF signals sent from the Augie Hiebert tower.

The consortium has presented its proposal to Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and to the FCC, which is checking to see whether it has the authority to grant the Alaska broadcasters' wish. If the FCC can't, Stevens hopes to legislate it.

As a fallback, Bramsted's group is looking at building a repeater network to accomplish the same thing without additional spectrum.