Engineering chiefs from major stations groups were busy Thursday reviewing their plans for what will be an even-busier Friday, as a digital TV conversion that began some 13 years ago comes to a conclusion when local stations permanently cease their analog operations by midnight today, June 12. They say they are ready for the turnoff and don't expect any major problems, though most won't be getting a lot of sleep as they oversee the logistics.
"So far, everything looks pretty non-eventful on our side," says Ardell Hill, senior VP of broadcast operations for Media General. "It's playing to a Y2K-type of attitude."
Like many other groups, Media General already had a few stations successfully turn off analog early on the original turnoff date of February 17. A number of its stations that are still broadcasting analog have already ceased regular programming, and are running informational messages.
Meredith Broadcast Group is also ready for the move, says VP of engineering Joe Snelson. "There could always be a few hiccups, but those are typically from viewers that just procrastinate," says Snelson. "It doesn't matter when you would tell them the date would be; you're always going to have those."
The stations facing the biggest hurdles are those switching their digital channel assignment as part of the turnoff, such as those reclaiming their analog channel assignment for ongoing digital operations. Some stations are also moving to new antennas. That will require their digital signal to go dark, either momentarily or for up to several hours, depending on logistics at the transmitter site.
In San Francisco, for example, stations on the Mt. Sutro master tower will all be going dark for some time after midnight as they move to a single DTV antenna. That new antenna will serve as an interim solution until the fall, by which time their old analog antennas will be removed and new full-powered digital facilities installed.
"It will all work out, it's just an elaborate choreography," says Cox Broadcasting VP of engineering Sterling Davis, who has been overseeing KTVU's Oakland's digital plans.
Meredith has three stations that are switching back to their original analog channel assignments, but the transmitters have already been modified and are "virtually ready to go," says Snelson.
As most engineers will tell you, it won't be a mass switch-off at 11:59 Friday night. Stations are staggering their shutoffs throughout the day, starting in the wee hours of Friday morning and continuing throughout the day and night, and have communicated those plans to the FCC.
Raycom Media will be shutting off roughly 40 analog stations Friday, after already ceasing operations in Wilmington, N.C., last September and Honololu in January. Some 17 of those stations will be changing channels, says Raycom CTO Dave Folsom. The new equipment for stations that are changing channels is already bolted into place, and Folsom says all of those stations should be off the air for less than an hour. For instance, WSFA in Montgomery, Ala., will shut down its analog transmitter at 2 a.m., unbolt the transmission line, and then rebolt it to its new digital transmitter.
All the other Raycom stations will also be making their moves in the pre-dawn hours.
"We've opted for everyone to go off by 6 a.m. tomorrow morning," says Folsom. "The reason why we decided on that was to give all of Friday for phone calls to come in, so people don't have to get the bulk of them on Saturday."
Belo's first station to turn off analog will be KMOV St. Louis, scheduled to go off at 12:01 am CST this morning, while the last will be KREM in Spokane at midnight PST.
"We've allowed the stations to plan that, and they've coordinated with others in the market," says VP of technology Craig Harper. "I think it's smarter for everyone in the market to go at the same time."
While Belo has seven stations changing channels as part of the move, no Belo station will be dark for longer than 30 minutes, as no station is moving to a new antenna.
"We did an extensive amount of planning, that goes back 10 years on how to do this," says Harper. "When we put these stations on air, we put in their final antennas, so we're not doing any real tower work. We only have two markets on side-mounted antennas, that will be replaced in the future. So nothing has to be done for this."
Reminding Viewers to Rescan
Since Belo is going back to analog high-VHF assignments in a number of markets, it has been educating viewers about the need to have a UHF/VHF antenna and to rescan their TVs and converter boxes after the switch. Making sure that viewers know how to find a VHF digital signal is also a concern for Raycom, which has some 12 stations (the former Liberty stations) that will be VHF digital outlets.
"The single most important message we've been running in the home stretch is to rescan," says Folsom. "Rescanning is a concept nobody had to deal with before in television."
Rescanning is also a focus for the ABC owned stations, all 10 of which are switching back to their analog VHF assignments for digital. That will only involve throwing an RF switch in most markets, says Dave Converse, VP of engineering for the group; WABC New York, for example, ceases analog at 12:30 pm, after its noon newscast, and should be broadcasting DTV on Ch.7 within minutes.
What will take more time is for viewers to rescan their digital TV sets and converter boxes to find WABC, which had formerly been broadcasting on UHF channel 45. Converse says that simple indoor antennas also may have trouble receiving the new high-VHF signals in markets like New York and Chicago due to the relatively low power VHF stations there are allowed to transmit, something that was confirmed by several "soft shutdowns' in recent weeks.
Perhaps the biggest concern heading into tomorrow evening is held by NBC affiliates who will be broadcasting Game 7 of the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup championship, which begins at 8 p.m. (See related story, "DTV: The Puck Could Stop Here") The game should be over by midnight, but if it goes long or runs into overtime, local stations still broadcasting in analog may face a quandary.
"If you were planning to stay on to midnight, do you hang on for a few minutes?" wonders Hill. "And if you do hang on for a few minutes, are you going to get fined?"