Identity Crisis

Stations may have to change channels in shift to digital
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For more than 50 years, WWOR New York has built a brand around its location on the dial: channel 9. The station bills its 10 p.m. newscast "UPN9 News," and callers with tips for the investigative team are asked to phone 1-800-CH9-News. The latest headlines can be accessed on UPN9.com, and, of course, the number 9 is prominent in its logo—in type twice as big as its call letters or network affiliation.

But WWOR may be facing an identity crisis. As soon as 24 months, the Fox-owned station may lose its highly prized single-digit spot on the TV dial for a new channel, 38, erasing enormous brand identity built up since the station was founded in 1949. That's because WBPH Philadelphia has first call on channel 9 when stations shift to an all-digital-TV format as mandated by law.

Because the two stations' transmitters are so close, WWOR can keep using channel 9 only if it gives up some of its coverage area—a loss of audience WWOR can ill afford. But moving to channel 38 may be a worse fate, allowing WWOR to keep its coverage area but exiling it to what Paxson Communications chief Bud Paxson calls the UHF "wasteland," the bank of double-digit channels known for bad reception and low ratings.

The DTV transition is forcing hundreds of big-market stations to make a similar choice. Because of interference from new neighbors, some of the more than 300 major-market stations in the Northeast, the Great Lakes area, and northern California will be forced by the government to return their longtime analog channel when they go all-digital. Others will find their old location unappealing because they may have to surrender audience—the decision WWOR faces—so a move to a new channel may be the only choice.

For stations, the transition calls for aggressive new marketing—new logos, new promos, even new jingles—to coax viewers into changing the channel. The difficult choice is being forced on stations by the TV industry's switch to all-digital channels, which some hard-liners in Congress want to complete by 2006. The FCC estimates the transition will be completed by 2009.

As part of the DTV switch, the government is taking channels 52-69 away from TV in every market and selling the frequencies for new communications technologies. Because TV will be limited to chs. 2-49, the same number of stations must be squeezed into a smaller space.

Making the problem worse, each station has been operating two channels, one analog and one digital, during the transition. To squeeze all these channels into a smaller block of space, the FCC has had to do some major shuffling. Now a station that operated for years without a problem may suddenly suffer interference from a new digital station next door.

Further complicating the situation, the FCC can't guarantee room for every station to have at least one channel in the 2-51 core. That means some stations have no option for a permanent home right now and room must be set aside for them later.

That's the case with LIN Television's WNAC Providence, R.I., which has operated channel 64 in analog since 1981 and has been given channel 54 as its temporary digital assignment. When WNAC is shoehorned into the 2-51 core later, there may well be a cascading effect that plays havoc with channel assignments throughout New England. In all, there are 169 stations like WNAC, with no permanent DTV option, whose insertion into local dials could screw up channel linups in nearby markets.

"There are so many moving pieces right now it's impossible for anybody to be certain where they will be," says Greg Schmidt, director of new development for LIN Television. The marketing and prestige invested in channel assignments has many in the industry worrying that TV stations will eventually end up fighting at the FCC and in court for the right to pick permanent digital assignments ahead of other stations.

To head off a legal civil war, DTV trade group Association for Maximum Service Television last week asked the FCC to decide which stations will choose first. Under MSTV's plan, stations with just one assignment—analog or digital—inside the core chs. 2-51 would be assigned that channel permanently. Next, stations with both an analog and a digital channel would finally have to pick which one they'll keep. Then, the FCC would find room for stations that, like WNAC, have no permanent channel.

Says Tribune Television President Pat Mullen, "This is as close to a fully supported industry solution as we could possibly get."

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