This November, broadcasters will take the next big step in the DTV transition: picking their future channel. The FCC-mandated process, known as open channel election, represents a seemingly simple station decision: Stay with the current DTV assignment or move to the familiar NTSC analog standard. The answer involves a myriad of issues, including signal interference, power costs and branding concerns.
"It's a technical issue, but it's also an emotional issue," says Richard Westcott, vice president of station technology for NBC Owned Television Stations. Even though digital receivers can remap new channels, some markets are passionate about keeping their original channel number.
The open election process officially begins in November.
Preference will be given to stations with two channel assignments in the "core spectrum," or Ch. 2-51, over those holding one or more assignments in out-of-core spectrum, or Ch. 52-69, which is slated for FCC auction.
Broadcast engineers are running mathematical models of their signal coverage to find the best fit. For many Big Four stations, this means deciding whether they should stick with their existing UHF digital facility or create a new one using their current analog VHF assignment.
There are arguments for each.
For instance, the benefits of a VHF slot can include lower power costs; Westcott estimates UHF power costs four to eight times as much as the VHF equivalent. But "low-V" channels—6 and below—are susceptible to impulse noise, which is generated by everything from car motors to vacuum cleaners. Some also question whether low Vs can provide adequate reception with today's indoor antennas.
"We're doing that analysis in markets where we have a high V or U and deciding whether they'll bother putting up high-V antennas," says Ira Goldstone, vice president and chief technology officer at Tribune Broadcasting. Goldstone predicts Tribune will stay on its current DTV channel in most markets, though he'll consider high-V digital broadcasts in Seattle, Chicago and New York. He says Tribune is lucky, as it has "mostly in-core channels."
Dave Converse, vice president and director of engineering for ABC Owned Television Stations, feels fortunate that he has only 10 stations to evaluate. "I can't imagine having to do that for a larger group, especially one with many stations on the Northeast seaboard," he says. "There are lots of interference issues there, since the markets are shoehorned in."
One tricky ABC market is Philadelphia, where WPVI currently broadcasts DTV on Ch. 64 and NTSC on Ch. 6. Since Ch. 64 is out-of-core, Converse is trying to model the potential problems in broadcasting DTV on Ch. 6. However, his primary concern isn't impulse noise. "It's more about FM interference, as it abuts the FM broadcast spectrum," he says. "The lower-frequency FM stations, mostly educational stations, are traditionally down there, and they can pop up anywhere at varying power levels." The big question: What does that do to local DTV over- the-air reception? Says Converse, "We know it causes a problem with analog over-the-air reception with Ch. 6."
The majority of Sinclair's 62 stations are UHF, and its DTV assignments fall the same way. However, sSinclair does have a few VHF assignments for DTV, including low Vs in Lexington, Ky., (Ch. 4) and Tallahassee, Fla. (Ch. 2). Del Parks, vice president of engineering and operations for Sinclair, worries whether they will provide viable indoor reception.
"DTV in general is going to be a UHF service," says Parks. "It's not just the interference, but we are big proponents of simple reception indoors. How big do you think an indoor antenna will have to be to receive Ch. 2?"
For its part, Media General will probably stick with most of its DTV assignments instead of reverting to analog slots, says Ardell Hill, senior vice president of broadcast operations at Media General. One problem market is Charleston, where Media General has a Ch. 2 analog assignment and a Ch. 50 digital slot. "If we go to Ch. 2, we'll reduce our operating cost by $150,000 a year," says Hill. "But we'll be vulnerable to interference." The bottom-line decision may be financial. Media General spent "a ton of money" beefing up Ch. 50's tower and would be forced to spend a small fortune on digital for Ch. 2 "all over again."