Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not So Fast, Dayton

It's official - the DTV Delay Bill is law, after being signed Wednesday afternoon by President Obama.

Broadcasting & Cable has more, along with a presidential signing statement:

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"During these challenging economic times, the needs of American consumers are a top priority of my administration. This law, which was crafted in a bipartisan way and passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, ensures that our citizens will have more time to prepare for the conversion."

"Millions of Americans, including those in our most vulnerable communities, would have been left in the dark if the conversion had gone on as planned, and this solution is an important step forward as we work to get the nation ready for digital TV. My administration will continue to work with leaders in Congress, broadcasters, consumer groups and the telecommunications industry to improve the information and assistance available to our citizens in advance of June 12.”

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And following that signing, the Federal Communications Commission has released a list of 123 stations (PDF file) that will have to meet extra guidelines to sign off analog signals on February 17th - that's this coming Tuesday for those without a calendar nearby - instead of the now-official new deadline of June 12th.

The remaining stations of the total of 491 - not tabbed in yesterday's FCC update - will be allowed to silence analog signals on Tuesday without further commission intervention. Locally, that list includes Multicultural Broadcasting infomercial outlet WOAC/67 Canton.

But as predicted in this report and elsewhere, two Ohio markets have received that extra "love" and attention from the FCC - Dayton, and Wheeling/Steubenville. Also, the only station in a single-station market serving Marietta and other Southeast Ohio viewers, Gray NBC affiliate WTAP/15 Parkersburg WV, is on the list.

All four major network affiliates in Dayton filed to go digital-only early, as did all the market's other stations save for Trinity Broadcasting's WKOI/43 Richmond IN. In Wheeling/Steubenville, both major network affiliates - WTRF/7 Wheeling WV (CBS) and WTOV/9 Steubenville (NBC) - want to shut off analog at the original date. (Did we mention that the date is TUESDAY, as in under a week from this writing?)

Here's the commission's particular concern, quoted in the public notice setting the new guidelines (PDF file):

We considered the presence of major networks and their affiliates critical to ensuring that viewers have access to local news and public affairs available over the air because the major network affiliates are the primary source of local broadcast news and public affairs programming. Therefore, even if independent or noncommercial stations remain on the air in these markets, we still considered these areas at risk.

As such, the Dayton list of "hold on a minute, not yet" stations includes WDTN/2 (NBC), WHIO/7 (CBS), WKEF/22 (ABC), and WRGT/45 (Fox), but does not include CW affiliate WBDT/26 (or PBS outlet WPTD/16).

Wheeling/Steubenville doesn't have any other full-power network affiliates (or stations, period), though it should be noted that over-air network service for ABC and Fox is provided in that market by - as any long-time reader should know - digital subchannels on CBS affiliate WTRF/7. WTAP does the same for Fox and MyNetwork TV in Parkersburg/Marietta.

So, what about the Dayton "Big Four" affiliates, and the two Ohio Valley stations?

The FCC has released a long list of guidelines that the stations must file to uphold, and the stations affected have to make that decision by the close of business on Friday:

Ensure that at least one station that is currently providing analog service to an area within the DMA that will no longer receive analog service after February 17, 2009 will continue broadcasting an analog signal providing, at a minimum, DTV transition and emergency information, as well as local news and public affairs programming (“enhanced nightlight” service) for at least 60 days following February 17, 2009. The local news, public affairs, or other programming may include commercial advertising.

That shouldn't be a problem in Dayton - for one, Sinclair owns both the ABC and Fox affiliates, and could presumably split them - with one station signing off analog, and one providing the so-called "enhanced nightlight" service. (Sinclair has already decided to keep Columbus ABC affiliate WSYX/6 in analog through the new June 12th deadline.)

It might be trickier in Wheeling/Steubenville, where the two stations compete.

The decision in Parkersburg/Marietta is solely up to WTAP, of course.

In addition to that requirement, stations much ensure that either they, or another local station or stations in some cases, adhere to a list of increased educational requirements, including telephone call-in help, establishing "walk-in" centers to provide hands-on help to viewers, and other such measures.

If a station can't comply with those guidelines, the commission provides an alternate route:

Stations listed in the Appendix that do not certify that they will undertake the actions described above may make an alternative showing to the Commission that extraordinary, exigent circumstances, such as the unavoidable loss of their analog site or extreme economic hardship, require that they terminate their analog service on February 17th.

Please note the words in the FCC public notice: "extreme economic hardship".

We're not experts when it comes to figuring out the FCC, but to us, that says stations won't be able to simply state that they're losing money. We assume they'd have to prove that keeping the analog transmitter on would basically put them out of business.

The FCC itself signals that this won't be an easy task:

We do not anticipate that many stations will be able to meet the high burden applicable to this showing.

...though the notice says the commission will "endeavor" to make the determination by Tuesday.

So, it'll likely be the first "extra education, and someone has to keep on an 'enhanced analog nightlight' signal" option for the affected stations. What may actually make that happen is the ability to run news - and more importantly, sell commercials - on the "enhanced nightlight" service.

Our prediction, at this point, is that they'll figure it out in Dayton, at least.

But, it's still a mess. We wonder how much all that extra effort will cost stations, if they'll be able to spread the costs, and if some stations on the 123 station list might just decide to keep on the analog transmitter anyway.

Government is not known for working fast, but the FCC has been throwing these rules at stations like a pitcher's fastball, and once again, local stations will have to jump through hoops and make important decisions in less than two days...frankly, all because Congress jumped into this in the first place, and jumped in late.

We hope someone with scholarly ties will be studying all this.

If Dayton's network affiliates are able to go on the originally scheduled date, which has been pounded into viewers' heads for over a full year, will the switch still be as smooth - or bumpy - as it will be for the stations transitioning on June 12th?

It's our long-held belief that whatever problems pop up after the transition, will pop up February 18th or June 13th, and that efforts should be focused on fixing those problems (signal improvements, etc.)...but, we're just the Mighty Blog, and we don't make FCC policy...

13 comments:

wayne-in-akron said...

I don't even pretend to be an electrical engineer who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I would have to assume that it takes additional electrical power (with the associated $$$ electrical bills) to boost the power of the existing, reduced power digital signals currently being broadcast.

With stations facing unexpected costs related to the extended use of the analog transmitters, I can't imagine that station operators will want to add any more expenses by boosting the digital signals that would improved strength and reception consistency to those of us who are 40+ miles from the antenna clusters.

Gee thanks Congress and President Obama!

Ohio Media Watch said...

Hi, Wayne,

In our last line, with the phrase "signal improvements", those improvements wouldn't take effect - and indeed, in many cases, could not! - until after the analog signal goes away.

The stations will be saving a lot of money by turning off analog, and even any increased power for digital will be a drop in the bucket out of that savings.

Stations that transition UHF digital to VHF digital will be in great shape, in the power cost category.

WJW "Fox 8" here will eventually maximize at 30 kW on digital 8.

But they'll be able to turn off their current analog 8 signal (236 kW), and their current digital 31 signal (625 kW).

That means every month, WJW will have to pay the power bill for one 30 kW transmitter. Right now, they pay to power two transmitters, at 861 kW (if we did the math right). They're saving, even with the improved digital signal on 8, the power costs related to 831 kW each and every month.

You can see where that'll add up over time.

Even the UHF stations do well. WBNX/55 puts out 5,000 kW analog, and their digital signal is 1,000 kW. They're saving 4,000 kW PER MONTH when analog 55 finally goes away.

So, the stations may be paying for more powerful transmitters and other work to improve their digital reception, but over time, they're saving a bunch by not having analog going.

And this work will basically only take place whenever the transition happens, unless stations get STAs to make it happen early.

-The Management

emery_r said...

Knowing from experience how several of the Dayton stations have behaved over the years, I think it's safe to predict that WHIO-7, and maybe WDTN-2 as well, will agree to the extras demanded by the FCC so the digital transition can proceed in Dayton. Their commitment to public service has been deep and real for decades.

As OMW has reported, certain improvements that must be made for final "top quality" digital signals may be delayed as a result of this FCC action. Much as with WJW-8 in Cleveland, WHIO-7 must remove its temporary digital and existing analog transmitters, replacing the analog one with its permanent digital transmitter atop the existing tower.

Until and unless that happens (and it's already scheduled for sometime in mid-March as it is), WHIO's digital signal and coverage will not be maximized. So we can all wait for the easily predicted flood of complaints, even though WHIO in particular has done a tremendous job educating the viewing public about DTV -- by far, the best of anyone in commercial broadcasting in this area.

Indeed, this is going to be even messier now than anyone probably expected!

AdamWilf said...

So how is Fox 8's new 30kW digital signal going to travel as far as the current digital 31's 625kW signal ? Or will it ? I live in Wooster and don't always get the digital 31 signal w/o pixilating.

Ohio Media Watch said...

Adam,

Simply put, you don't need as much power on the VHF band to get coverage, either analog or digital.

Note that WJW's current analog 8 power is 236 kW. UHF analog stations, to get similar full coverage, go as high as 5,000 kW - like WBNX does.

The "maximized" power for a VHF digital station is 30 kW, and for a UHF digital, it's 1,000 kW.

This is all basic stuff, and doesn't necessarily hold up 100% for a variety of reasons.

Powerful UHF signals are sometimes "easier" to pick up than powerful VHF signals, particularly for small antennas. (It's one reason some stations have kept UHF DTV transmitters, thinking about such things as mobile DTV and antennas in small devices.)

Columbus' WSYX/6 has filed to move its digital from VHF 13 to VHF 48, presumably for reasons like this (Sinclair keeps an eye on this), and because it'd be a VHF island in a UHF digital TV market.

I've simplified a lot of this, but this is what the TV stations are facing...

--The Management

Ohio Media Watch said...

Oh, another thing we should make clear: WJW's current digital channel 8 construction permit is 11 kW.

If the station had gone ahead and filed to take analog 8 dark on Tuesday, and put on digital 8, this is the current approved power for that facility.

WJW has an application to maximize DT 8 to 30 kW, which doesn't appear to have been approved yet. Now that they aren't going to change on the 17th, there should be plenty of time for that approval between now and June 12th.

--The Management

emery_r said...

My eye is on WHIO-7 during their 90 minute evening news and an already-scheduled DTV special report to be broadcast at 7 PM tonight. So far, the first half-hour of the news has had a couple of reports and public service announcements based on the assumption they WILL be going digital as scheduled. No ifs, ands or buts (so far).

Looks like they plan to meet the FCC's new requirements -- but I'll keep watching to see what they say later this evening.

One comment on their coverage so far tonight -- a reporter gave a detailed demonstration from Xenia on how to set up a converter box, saying it was as simple as connecting one cable to your TV, another to your antenna, plugging in the box, tuning the TV to Ch. 3 or 4, and turning everything "on". Voila, she showed WHIO on the TV screen.

Um, she left out one VERY important step -- have the box scan for channels! I find no excuse for omitting that step -- nothing will show up without a scan, and people should re-scan often during this transition, since some stations will flash to different channels during the transition.

Ohio Media Watch said...

Rich, I'd be surprised if they didn't work out something in Dayton.

The reports I'm reading, already, have some of these stations in "vulnerable" markets going out and actually doing some of the things the FCC is requesting.

I've seen word of at least one station that is sending crews to people's homes, today, after that announcement from the FCC.

But yes, the stations have to keep the scanning in mind :D

My guess, and it's only a guess at this point - is that Sinclair splits 22/45, with one of the stations keeping the "extended analog nightlight" going, and that WHIO plays a lead role in the required educational aspects.

--The Management

Ohio Media Watch said...

Come to think of it, maybe WHIO will do the honors - both in intense education and "enhanced nightlight".

Again, just a guess.

--The Management

emery_r said...

Right you are, OMW. WHIO also sent a crew, with one of their broadcast engineers, to a private home today. The residents had a big problem with digital reception, which was quickly blamed on an old non-amplified set of rabbit ears -- complete with crumpled aluminum foil on one "ear".

The engineer helpfully went to a local store, purchased a new set of amplified rabbit ears and installed them for the family. Problem solved!

WHIO is also asking for unused converter boxes and coupons to be brought to the station. A local charity will disperse them to the community. No doubt this and other examples of public service will be used to meet the FCC's increased requirements -- I agree with OMW that Dayton will almost certainly make the switch next week.

emery_r said...

Nothing much new through the end of WHIO's evening news -- more reports premised on the idea they'll go digital next week, but oddly, not one word about the FCC's higher hurdle before making that transition.

One more example of their public outreach -- they have something called a "DTV Door Knock" team, which is making random stops in Dayton neighborhoods to set up converter boxes for free when needed. One woman tonight said she'd seen news reports about the team yesterday, praying they'd call on her today -- which they did! She lives on a fixed income and said she simply couldn't afford a converter box. Needless to say, the team made her VERY happy.

Matt said...

WTTE in Columbus has shown in recent weeks their reporters going out to houses and helping expecallly older folks hook up the boxes, scan for channels and how to use them....

WTTE is ofcourse one of the stations here in Columbus killing their analog signal next week.

They are also doing nightly phone banks and for those who get busy signals,or voicemail, informing they will call them back in 24 hours to provide answers.

emery_r said...

WHIO-7's V.P. and General Manager Harry Delaney kicked off their special 7 PM DTV program with a definitive statement that they WILL be going digital on Feb. 17. Chief Engineer Chuck Eastman then discussed technical details, confirming the old analog antenna must come off the top of their broadcast tower, to be replaced in March by a permanent digital antenna with a better, more powerful signal than the side-mounted temporary digital antenna.

Again, no explicit discussion of the FCC's new conditions for a Feb. 17 transition, but I have no doubt after seeing this special broadcast that WHIO plans to meet those conditions. Hard to imagine they'll go without pulling along all the rest of the Dayton stations too.

Eastman did explicitly discuss scanning and re-scanning converter boxes, unlike their earlier news report which omitted this step. All good -- except I believe he goofed by stating all Dayton channels were already on their permanent digital channel. Everything I've seen says WPTD-16 will leave digital 58, flashing back to 16, and WBDT-26 will leave digital 18 and return to 26. Very odd mistake to make!

Near the end, the Nightlight Program finally came up. WHIO's original plan to keep broadcasting analog for only 2 weeks after Feb. 17 was re-stated; this seems at odds with the FCC's newly extended time period for analog Nightlight service. No mention was made of any beefed-up Nightlight content, such as actual news broadcasts, as described in the FCC advisory.

All in all, even though the program occasionally got bogged down in technical jargon that could confuse lots of people, it was quite good -- a definite public service.