Friday, November 21, 2008

Add 30 Days?

It looks like America's full-power TV broadcasters may get an extra 30 days to help assure a smoother digital TV transition.

Broadcasting & Cable Magazine reports that Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed "by unanimous consent" a so-called TV "nightlight bill", which would "would allow broadcasters to continue an analog signal for 30 days past the Feb. 17, 2009 cut-off date".

Though the bill reportedly has support of FCC commissioner Kevin Martin, and the support of the White House, B&C reports that nothing more will happen until the House of Representatives takes up the measure - after their return from the Thanksgiving holiday break on December 8th.

It isn't immediately clear to us, at least, what form the "Short-Term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness (SAFER) Act" would take.

B&C quotes Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, as supporting the act, but that she has in mind a "limited extension for emergency and DTV transition information", not a full-fledged delay of the February 19th cut-off.

That 30 day "nightlight" would presumably take the form of the early analog cut-off in Wilmington NC, where local stations kept their analog signals on the air an extra month only to provide information about the transition itself (or to carry emergency information if that became necessary).

But unlike in Wilmington, a number of stations are planning to switch digital frequencies to occupy former analog channels on February 17th - among them, here in Northeast Ohio, WKYC-DT's planned move from RF 2 to RF 17, a channel now occupied by the analog side of TBN O&O WDLI/17 in Canton.

And other stations are abandoning analog entirely, like Western Reserve PBS' WNEO/45 Alliance, months before the transition. (So has Mid-State independent WMFD/68 Mansfield, though the WMFD folks also own analog LPTV/Class A outlet WOHZ-CA/41.)

Clearly, a lot of technical questions would have to be answered about how this would take effect.

B&C also reports that the NTIA's Baker and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein are supporting an early, nationally-coordinated soft analog shut-off test, about a month before the transition date.

These tests have already taken place in Pennsylvania and in some individual markets, though there's no sign of one anywhere in Ohio (HINT! HINT!).

Meanwhile, as the analog side of WNEO is now gone for good, OMW hears that the Western Reserve PBS folks were not at all overwhelmed in calls from panicked viewers unable to watch anything from "NewsHour" to "Barney and Friends".

A number of factors are likely involved.

For one, as we've reported here extensively, the station has gone above and beyond in its role in digital TV education in Northeast Ohio, complete with talks and hands-on demonstrations for viewers.

And Western Reserve PBS has been incredibly proactive in informing its Youngstown area viewers about the early departure of analog channel 45, the Salem-based transmitter that services the Mahoning Valley and nearby areas.

They've been open and forthcoming about everything - and have even kept this very blog informed of every step involved.

We've written a lot about it. Not only is the WNEO move an important first step in Northeast Ohio's digital transition, but a number of station staffers have chipped in to provide us information and answer our questions.

Our thanks, specifically, go to Western Reserve PBS communications coordinator Diane Steinert, who never tires of our queries - and gets us answers to even the most arcane technical questions. Even station manager Bill O'Neil has kept OMW in the loop in this transition period.

But perhaps the most important factor keeping the phone traffic at the Western Reserve PBS DTV Help Desk to a minimum this week was the coordination with area cable TV systems and the two major satellite services - to keep the station's programming flowing for their Youngstown market subscribers even during the two days when WNEO wasn't on the air in either analog or digital form.

Those who did not depend on an analog TV antenna to receive WNEO's signal saw nary a hiccup, and likely had no idea that transmitter was gone. (Well, for a while early Wednesday, there was a minor glitch affecting some Armstrong Cable viewers - but the problem was ironed out quickly.)

But we're only talking about reaction to one station going dark, analog-style, in Northeast Ohio's smallest market, Youngstown.

Multiply even the calls Western Reserve PBS got by three for the rest of the market, and by a much larger number when all the Cleveland market analog stations go dark, and perhaps we'll have a better idea what will happen in February here and everywhere...

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