Thursday, January 22, 2009

An Odd Wednesday

And considering the events of this week, "odd" may be an understatement.

Yeah, we're tiring rather rapidly of listing those tossed aside from the Good Ship Radio this week. For the moment, we'll lead with something not related to job loss...

THE ANALOG SHUFFLE: When local television stations figure out how they'll deal with cable systems and signal carriage, they have basically two choices.

Broadcasters can either demand "retransmission consent", which means they get some consideration (monetary, or carriage of related channels) from the cable system to permit them to carry their signal, or they can demand "must carry", which forces the cable system to carry their signal without compensation involved.

Stations like Trinity O&O WDLI/17 Canton choose the latter, and apparently, TBN pushed the issue going into 2009. WDLI landed on a whole truckload of Time Warner Cable systems it had not been on before, including the company's big Cleveland-based system.

And including Ashtabula, where an odd "one for one" trade prompted TWC to dump Erie PA PBS affiliate WQLN/54.

The Ashtabula Star-Beacon's Robert Lebzelter reports in an article last week that the cable company is partially acceding to subscriber pressure, and will bring back WQLN - for digital cable subscribers - in the Ashtabula/Conneaut/Geneva areas on February 18th.

The Erie PBS outlet says "that's not enough".

Lebzelter's article says WQLN officials continue to fight to return Channel 54 to the analog space it occupied until the addition of WDLI at the first of the year. Quoting:

Tom New, the station’s creative services director, said the cable giant is violating the must-carry law and wants it returned to the basic cable package.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We are still a local channel,” he said.

New said the station’s attorneys in Washington sent a letter Wednesday morning (1/14) both by U.S. mail and electronically, demanding to be returned to the basic lineup.

“Now we are in a holding pattern,” New said.

Time Warner Cable officials apparently have a different geographic view, citing that since the Ashtabula-area systems are fed out of Cleveland - WDLI gets the must carry designation and WQLN doesn't.

Ashtabula County is on the eastern edge of the Cleveland TV market, despite its proximity to Erie.

But the Erie PBS outlet points out that Ashtabula County is very much in its local service area, is closer to Erie, and they believe subscribers shouldn't be forced to pay for digital cable to watch the station.

Similar scenarios are being played out elsewhere in the Time Warner system, with the company dumping "duplicate" stations outside their market area - along with the general move from analog to digital.

And we note that practice isn't going over well with the Federal Communications Commission, according to this Associated Press article earlier this week:

The Federal Communications Commission is fining nine cable TV operators for attempting to thwart its investigation of a practice in which analog channels were transferred to a more expensive digital tier, leaving some customers without access.

We're wondering if this provided an avenue for WQLN in their effort to return to analog in the Ashtabula region.

This is not really directly related, but OMW feels the need to note that Time Warner Cable subscribers in Northwest Ohio lost their access to CBC television outlet CBET/9 Windsor, Ontario, Canada in the changes. CBET had long been on systems in Findlay and Bowling Green, camped out on analog channel 19.

We understand why it happened...but since we keep an eye on Canada, we're sad to see it'll be gone if we visit that part of the TWC footprint in the future.

As far as we know, CBET/CBC is still available on the Toledo-based Buckeye Cablesystem, including on its Erie County system based in Sandusky...

MORE DIGITAL, OR LESS?: This isn't necessarily a Northeast Ohio item, but it has one interesting local reference.

A recent Washington Post article talks about all the potential glitches regarding the nation's transition to digital television, which - at last check - is still set for February 17th. (Check back later, though. At last report, efforts to move the date to June 12th have apparently stalled in Congress...but, things could change.)

And among the concerns about signal strength and the like, comes this anecdotal item from a DC-area woman with relatives near here. Quoting:

Nicolle Singer, 29, of the District, said she is concerned that her retired parents, who live in a small Ohio town 60 miles west of Cleveland, will lose the channels they've come to rely on as a main source of news.

"They're annoyed because they feel like they're being forced to get satellite," she said. "Cable service isn't available where they live."

And her father is to reluctant to go on the roof of the two-story house in winter weather to replace the 20-year-old antenna with a stronger one.

OK, a few things.

One, we'll assume by the "60 miles west of Cleveland" location that Ms. Singer's parents live somewhere in in the Sandusky/Norwalk region. We don't know the area intimately, but we're surprised that there's even a small town that can't get service from Time Warner Cable's massive local system.

(Even so, Ms. Singer's parents are apparently - reluctantly - ready to sign up for satellite service...they're not all that happy about it, but they know it's an option.)

Two, we're wondering if that "20 year-old antenna" on the roof would still work, or if "a stronger (antenna)" means it's about to fall off the roof or fall apart, or if it's not enough to pick up the digital signals from the Parma antenna farm. We're wondering if they have tried it with a digital converter box, or just believe they are not expecting to get digital signals with it.

But it does reiterate a point we've made here before.

Cleveland is not the biggest sized market in the country, geographically. (We'd put a bet on Denver, which stretches into parts of Utah and we believe even parts of Montana.)

But the Cleveland/Akron (Canton) TV market is still pretty big, and there is still a possibility that even those with a modest roof antenna that far out will be unable to watch channels they used to receive in analog - probably with a coating of TV "snow".

We're talking digital here - either you have the signal, and it's perfect, or you lose the signal.

It's just a part of the transition, and no amount of delay in the date will fix that.

As we've said before, it'll be up to the local stations if they wish to employ digital TV fixes for areas like Sandusky, Mansfield/Ashland, Dover/New Philadelphia or Ashtabula, all on the edges of the Cleveland TV market. There are fixes available, including "distributed" TV boosters and digital translators.

(Our good friend Scott Fybush at NorthEast Radio Watch reports that a digital translator is already being used to good effect in the far flung Johnstown/Altoona PA market, extending one station's digital reach to State College - using PSIP to show WJAC/6's signal on a digital tuner as 6-1.)

In the end, the stations will have to decide whether it's worth "fixing" the outside ranges of the signal, given the small population in each area - and the small percentage of that population that doesn't have cable or satellite...

AND SOME BAD PRINT NEWS: You know we couldn't get too far from more layoff news, given the state of the economy and the collapsing media business.

This time, it's Ohio Print Media Watch, as OMW hears that Record Publishing has laid off as many as a dozen employees mostly at the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier daily newspaper.

We're told the R-C lost two reporters, two photographers (out of three), an advertising sales person, a classified ad taker, two circulation managers, and an ad designer, and that the company's weekly division in Stow let go "at least one other reporter/editor".

The layoffs - which happened January 12th - are being blamed, like everything, on the economy. We're told that the Ravenna-based newspaper has been particularly hard hit with a loss of display advertising from car dealers, and that there's only one car dealer even left in the Portage County seat.

OMW reported earlier that the paper shuttered its offices in Kent, part of a consolidation that sent most of the people (still left) to the R-C's Ravenna headquarters...


emery_r said...

The Washington Post's digital transition story referenced in this post deserves greater discussion. Another short article linked in that story ( specifically mentions Cleveland/Akron as one area where viewers are highly likely to lose over-the-air broadcasts.

And searching for the research backing that disturbing conclusion leads to THIS study by "IP Action Partners":

Check it out -- the loss of broadcast stations and the significant added cost many viewers will likely incur to install roof top antennas -- yes, that's right, ROOF TOP ANTENNAS! -- demonstrates that the total cost of digital TV will go FAR beyond the simple purchase of a converter box for many. We're going to be shocked at the impact of this step forward into digital TV. Such added costs on the public aren't going to go down well during this economic recession/depression...

Ohio Media Watch said...

emery_r: Thanks for bringing it up. We've been meaning to mention this for some time.

The "dirty little secret" of the FCC's information about digital TV coverage is this - it assumes a rooftop antenna, at least 30 feet off the ground.

Using an indoor antenna? Your mileage may definitely vary!

Locally, we suspect that when all the stations ramp up to full power post-transition, most folks in Cuyahoga and Summit County will have little difficulty, along with eastern Lorain County and western Lake County.

But we've already been reading complaints on the Canton Repository's website from people in Stark County. And that's still the heart of the Cleveland/Akron (Canton) TV market!

The "you could need a new antenna" issue for folks in Canton, for folks further out from the Parma antenna farm, is kinda lost in the message right now.

We're wondering if the new DTS booster system will be used in areas like Canton, as TV stations could lose over-air viewers.

Or, if the stations will just eat the small-percentage losses in a reasonably high cable/satellite penetration area...Canton and Stark County have had cable TV for decades, and what's now the Time Warner system there has a decently high uptake, we're sure.

-The Management

emery_r said...

"Dirty little secret" is just about the perfect way to put it.

I recently got into an on-line dust-up with someone who wrote a column in the Cincinnati Enquirer, in which she criticized the government's converter coupon program and insulted anyone who isn't, or won't be, completely prepared for digital TV by the February deadline.

While things may settle down when all stations are on their final post-transition digital channels at full power, I do expect many people to continue having problems at home. The return of roof-top antennas, which AREN'T cheap, strikes me as extreme deja vu -- an unexpected return to the 1950s and 1960s for many!

I write from southwest Ohio, and I've lost almost all Dayton digital stations over the air, even though coverage maps show all should be received at my house. With analog, no problem -- all of them have fair to good signals. Not with digital! Cincinnati is still generally excellent, but many inside the city of Hamilton cannot get WCPO digital.

I use a highly recommended TERK amplified indoor antenna, the best of several I've tried, and also have tried 3 different converter boxes. This seems about as good as it gets, short of erecting a roof top antenna. Sad. This seems so wrong, considering the FCC is charged with regulating the PUBLIC airwaves in the PUBLIC's interest.

Ohio Media Watch said...

I have no doubt that plenty of these issues will have to be addressed.

The "30 foot high roof antenna" thing generally won't be a problem for areas close-in to the transmitters. I'm using a variety of indoor and rabbit ears antennas about 20 miles from the Cleveland market transmitters, and just about all of 'em work fine (aside from stations getting facilities upgrades later).

Again, the immediate Cleveland and Akron areas will be fine for the most part.

But the challenges will come on the outer fringes of the market, and stations will have to decide just how important it is to reach small communities on the edge of the market over-air.

In this economy, it's gonna be hard to convince people in those areas to buy a new roof-mounted antenna to pick up a station they used to get - with some snow, but "watchable", before.

It's also going to be hard to convince them to shell out for cable service, even "lifeline" service. But they'll also have to decide how important TV is to them.

-The Management

Tim Lones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Lones said...

Good Discussion:
I am in a rental situation and have Time Warner (Canton) as my main TV provider and am looking into Free-To-Air Satellite to put in one room. (I have now-unused Satellite poles in my front yard I want to put the FTA Dish on)

I, too, used the Terk amplified indoor antenna and one of the early RCA converters (without analog pass through) and am about 60 miles outside Cleveland. I get generally good signals from WDLI-17, WNEO/WEAO 45/49, WKBN-27/WYFX and WOAC-67. On an HDTV set (no converter needed) I have, I get watchable pictures from analog 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 45, 49, 53 (Canton), 67 and sometimes 8..

Unless I can rig something outside on the aforementioned pole OTA may definetly be a problem in my location..

Tim Lones said...

53 in the list above should be 52,,

Ann said...

I had a new rooftop antenna put on my house in May (I live in Ellet, south of 76) and have been really excited to finally receive channel 5 reliably. I can't get 25 or 23 anymore through my digital converters, but that's their issues, not mine. I also get 21 and 27 from Youngstown - and they have the Fox and CW stations as their side channels. 45/49 is also planning on expanding their side channel offerings. Compared to the cable I haven't been paying for since switching to OTA 9 years ago, the antenna was pretty cheap (I get my high speed through AT&T).

As far as putting off the conversion goes, it's going to be a pain no matter when it happens, so we might as well get it over with. If it doesn't happen as announced, the old people will just think they're ok and then be really ticked off when their sets go dead in June.

Morgan Wick said...

I have seen one of the NAB ads say "you could need an antenna".

Cleveland is not all that big of a market - it may seem like it because most of the stations are relatively close to the shores of Lake Erie, away from the center of the market. NYC is probably bigger, and Columbus may be about the same size.

Denver does not extend into Montana, to my knowledge, but it does border it. It actually has one or two parts that are geographically cut off from the rest of the market, thanks to various counties changing hands in the Nielsen calculations.

Denver is a big market, but it has competition for the "biggest" crown from Salt Lake and Albuquerque/Santa Fe, both of which cover most if not all of their respective states. Even Phoenix might be close in size to Denver. That's before getting into the Alaskan markets.

(I'm using this map for my info, which may or may not be reliable.)

Energy said...

I installed a suburban class radio shack antenna on a 20 foot mast last summer for my grandparents. They have a place up on the Marblehead peninsula. While we are only 40 miles from Toledo, they prefer Cleveland stations since their primary residence is near Hinckley. Surprisingly, with the antenna properly aimed at Cleveland, we only got 2 or 3 stations and no Toledo stations. When I reversed it pick up Toledo, we got almost all Cleveland stations off the back of the antenna(with exception of those already having issues 3, 19, 25), along with most Toledo and My TV 20 from Detroit.

ghz said...

OMW is correct about the reception predictions being based on a roof top antenna. I can say from experience that people close in to the Parma antenna ridge will do pretty well with indoor antennas/rabbit ears or one of the numerous “amplified antennas” I have seen. It is unfortunate that people farther away may be led to believe that the “amplified antenna” will solve their problems. In many, if not most cases, it will not. They will be wasting their money based on bad advice they get at numerous retailers selling the units.

For people who elect to go with the outdoor antenna, there are numerous caveats also. I will say that with a properly installed, adequate antenna outside, you will get the best results. You will get better picture quality than is possible from cable or satellite providers. Generally speaking here….I don’t want to get too technical, the resolution from cable or sat is maxed out at 720. With an antenna and a hi res capable tuner and display monitor, you can get 1080 as long as the over the air station is transmitting in that mode. Not all stations broadcast in the high res mode. Another issue for people considering a roof top antenna is the “intervening terrain and obstructions” between you and the transmission antenna. There can’t be a whole bunch of stuff blocking the “line of sight” path like hills and buildings. Yet another variable is the grade of antenna the consumer elects to install….they are sometimes categorized as City, Fringe, and Deep Fringe. Again, in general, consumers will want to get the highest gain antenna they can afford. If you dig up the specs, that will be given in dB in most cases. The functionality of the antenna installation will be greatly enhanced if it is installed with a rotor….how retro is that? Unfortunately, even the best antenna does not guarantee successful reception. Finally, the installation materials and quality of workmanship make a difference too. The grade of coax used, or twin lead in some cases, the way the connections are done, and the length of the downlead run, how it enters the house, and proper insulation are all significant factors.

When I lived in the high ground of northern Columbiana County, with a high gain rooftop antenna, I could watch all of the Cleveland stations, most of the Pittsburgh stations, all of the Akron stations, Steubenville, Wheeling and sometimes Erie PA, and in the summer when conditions were right I could get Columbus, Toledo and London Ontario stations. For my present location deep in the Cuyahoga Valley in Peninsula, I plan on using a modest grade antenna installed in my duplex apartment attic. That will just be a geeky HD enhancement to my TW digital cable.

My whole point here is that for the general consumer, there may be too many technical variables that could adversely affect how well that converter box or new HD TV perform.