With the Feb. 17 deadline to turn off analog TV signals still in danger of being postponed at presstime, broadcasters were grimly assessing the financial and operational impacts that moving the date would have on their business. A revised Senate bill to postpone the analog turnoff until June 12 goes to a House vote this week (see story, p. 3), and the continued jockeying in Washington has left many engineers feeling uneasy.
If the new measure stalemates, Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for Sinclair Broadcast Group, believes we won't have heard the last of the roller-coaster issue. “Somebody will get a bill somewhere and it will be back on track,” he said.
Nonetheless, Sinclair is moving ahead as if it is ceasing analog operations on Feb. 17. Those actions include installing new transmitter cabinets that will allow stations to change their digital TV (DTV) channels in six or seven markets, and running spots reminding consumers of the Feb. 17 deadline. For both broadcasters' and consumers' sakes, Parks hopes the date doesn't move.
“We've all been working toward that date, and everything has been placed and ordered,” he said. “It's a gigantic exercise, and it's all interrelated. It's confusing to begin with, and to change it at the last minute will be even more confusing.”
If a delay were to occur, the biggest hit would be felt by large station groups that currently operate significant numbers of high-powered UHF analog transmitters, such as Sinclair and Ion Media. With a five-megawatt analog UHF transmitter consuming as much as $25,000 per month in electricity, continuing to provide analog signals through June 12 is not a trivial expenditure for local stations, particularly when they are facing a significant downturn in automotive and financial advertising.
Ion estimates it would incur more than $2 million in electricity, leasing, insurance and maintenance costs to keep analog signals running on its 60 stations through June 12. Capitol Broadcasting, a much smaller group with five stations in North Carolina, projects around $300,000 in electricity costs alone to keep analog signals humming.
“We haven't budgeted any maintenance for analog transmitters, knowing they're going off in February,” said Parks, who adds that one Sinclair transmitter is more than 25 years old. “Times are pretty tough these days, and there's just no money in the budget. If you have to spend more money in electricity and maintenance, where does the money come from? What else don't you do? Do you not hire somebody, or lay somebody off?”
Besides budget considerations, postponing the Feb. 17 turnoff would create logistical hassles for stations that have scheduled tower or transmitter work to be done in accordance with that date. Towers that have multiple stations as tenants may have several separate rigging crews coming to perform work on a staggered schedule, and those plans aren't easily changed.
Don Doty, president of tower supplier Stainless and chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), a trade group for the tower industry, says there are more than 100 tower projects tied to the Feb. 17 analog turnoff. He has urged lawmakers to stick to the deadline to avoid unnecessary costs and potential safety problems.
“Some stations have to wait until another station leaves their analog channel until they can initially occupy their digital channel, and a number of those have had to wait until the last minute because of the logistics of it,” Doty says. “There's a lot of money tied up, and you can't just change schedules easily. That also presupposes that these folks don't have work later in the year.”
Ion, which is changing channels or optimizing antenna position for some 13 stations, is sticking to its previous arrangements with rigging crews to get that work performed, according to David Glenn, the company's president of engineering.
“There may be multiple changes on a tower, but you can only have one rigger on a tower at time,” Glenn says. “If we don't hit our date, then other dates slide, and it becomes a really complicated issue for the whole industry.”
Ion is considering whether it can cease analog operations early for some stations if the Feb. 17 date does get postponed to June. To avoid interference problems, of course, that will require cooperation from other stations in those markets.
“It's back to the drawing board,” Glenn says. “We're running analysis on the stations we are making modifications to. Some are dependent on other people in the market, and we're trying to reach out to the other stations to find out what their plans are.”
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