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Affordable DTV is a reality

With the FCC's May 2002 deadline for all commercial stations to be on the air with a digital signal looming, many stations have cited the substantial cost involved in upgrading to digital television—and a lack of a clear business model—as the reason for their delay in moving forward. One small-market broadcast company in Kingsport, Tenn., understands the need to make the transition quickly and has done so for less than $125,000.

The FCC mandates only that a station must be transmitting a standard-definition (480-line) digital signal, not necessarily a high-definition signal. An infrastructure that can transmit upconverted NTSC programming will satisfy the government. In addition, commercial stations can go on now at low power and then increase to their mandated full power by the end of 2004.

"Our company was first in the market with FM stereo, AM stereo, TV stereo and a secondary audio program [SAP], so we're big on new technology," says George DeVault, president of Holston Valley Broadcasting Corp. (HVBC), which is in DMA 93, serving parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. "However, a wealthier competitor [WCYB-DT Bristol, Va.] was spending over a million dollars to get on the air with its digital TV station ahead of us. We weren't sure what to do and, more important to the bottom line, why?"

Those were DeVault's thoughts last spring as he headed off to the NAB Convention in Las Vegas, knowing very little about digital television. "I resolved to learn as much as possible about terrestrial digital television and to see just how cheaply we could get an interim version of our WKPT-DT on the air," he recalls. "Amazingly, after visiting many exhibit booths and speaking with a plethora of sales reps and engineers, I came up with a package that I believed would get us on the air with about 5,400 WERP for only about $125,000."

The first question DeVault asked himself was what kind of coverage would he have and how would it compare with that of his competitor, whose interim DTV operation was just getting on the air with 129,000 W.

Returning home from Las Vegas, he bought a digital set-top receiver and started monitoring reception of the signal from WCYB-DT. Since its transmitter would be on the same mountain as WCYB-DT's (and on an adjacent channel), DeVault concluded that, if he approximated the signal strength of the proposed interim version of his own digital station by attenuating the received strength of his competitor's more powerful station, he could count on reception of WKPT-DT once it was constructed.

But why build 18 months ahead of the deadline? The $125,000 price tag may not be much for a larger DTV station, but it's still a lot for a small company to invest in what many call "an experiment." The answer is related to the DTV build-out. In addition to full-service ABC affiliate WKPT-TV, HVBC owns and operates WAPK-LP, the local UPN affiliate. The station enjoys cable carriage on some 25 systems, some of which are over 50 miles from the WAPK-LP transmitter on that mountain.

The problem, as DeVault explains it, is that full-service station WVLT-DT in Knoxville, Tenn.—about 100 miles away—will be "firing up" its DTV transmitter next year on the same channel as his WAPK-LP, which is going to have to change channels and halve its power to survive and gain Class A status. Absent another means to get WAPK's programming to cable systems, some of those systems would be forced to drop the station's programming. The way to be able to reach these systems was to build WKPT-DT early and "multicast" WAPK-LP's programming as WKPT-DT-2.

"Our need to ensure the continued viability of WAPK didn't just give us an excuse to get WKPT-DT on the air well in advance of the May 1, 2002, deadline," says DeVault. "It made doing so imperative."

Thus, on Aug. 15, HVBC's board voted to build WKPT-DT as soon as possible. A few days later, DeVault had special temporary authority from the FCC to proceed. Only two months after getting the go-ahead and following a total construction time of only two days, WKPT-DT signed on with test signals. By early November, its digital multicast was on the air.

Not only does it currently transmit the programming of WKPT-TV/ABC-19 on WKPT-DT-1 and the programming of WAPK-LP/UPN-30 on WKPT-DT-2, the company is also transmitting the audio from a number of audio services, including some of its radio stations. And, DeVault points out, it has plenty of DTV bandwidth to spare.

Approximately 40,000 cable subscribers and a small number of individual DTV enthusiasts are now receiving WAPK's programming via WKPT-DT-2, and additional cable systems are expected to switch over soon or add WAPK's programming for the first time via WKPT-DT-2.

DeVault believes that he has shown that it is possible to transmit a digital signal and not break your station's bank account. It's also a matter of survival.

"The FCC's policy is 'use it or lose it,'" he says. "If a commercial TV station, which was loaned a second channel for DTV, doesn't have its digital on the air by May 1, 2002, technically, it loses the right to construct a DTV station and, thus, will have to cease telecasting altogether on the date the commission forces it to terminate its analog transmission. If such a commercial broadcaster doesn't have its DTV transmission up to its allocated full-power level by the end of 2004, the station will be limited to whatever lower, interim DTV power level it has on the air at that time."

DeVault hopes to increase his station's power "by a factor of 10" by early next year and then go to full-power by the end of 2004.

Regarding DTV operation, he says, "There's no way to fully appreciate the ins and outs until you get it on the air. We don't feel we're compromising ourselves the system we've put together. It's working quite well."