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Airtime: The DTV Transition Brings Tidal Wave of Change

[The following was written by a large-market TV station engineer with several decades of experience under his belt. Name withheld by request.]

With the establishment of the hard Feb. 17, 2009, deadline, everyone in the broadcast marketplace could create a decent time line for their required activities and plan accordingly. All of the TV stations had to purchase new digital transmitters, antennas and feedlines, and also pay for installation. Some had to purchase new transmitter buildings or add on to their old buildings. Some had to build new towers.

Add to this financial burden the cost of the studio digital infrastructure. Yes, of course, one can continue converting the old analog signal to a standard-definition digital broadcast. However, as soon as one station in a market offers high-definition local broadcast, the others must follow suit to remain competitive for the ever-decreasing piece of the advertising revenue pie.

So, the race was on to be the first in the market to generate high-definition local broadcasts. Know that every piece of analog equipment, including interconnect cabling, had to be replaced for the in-house digital capability. Of course, the old analog equipment had to be kept working while the new equipment was being installed and energized.

Then, to add insult to injury, the stations had to pay hazardous-material costs for the removal of the worthless analog equipment. Congress may have mandated the conversion to digital television, but it's the broadcast stations that have financed it.

Unforeseen circumstances

Once the hard deadline of Feb. 17, 2009, was mandated for the DTV transition, we all knew there would be a new administration in place. There was considerable water-cooler chat about the impact a new administration might impose. At least the hard deadline was after the Super Bowl and before March Madness. Nielsen even discontinued the February sweeps for this time frame to lessen the unknown factors of the transition. All breathed a sigh of relief.

Then the general economy tanked and the converter box coupon program ran out of money. The proverbial fertilizer hit the ventilator, and the new administration decided to implement its mantra of “Change” with the DTV Nightlight Act. Apparently that wasn't bright enough, so now we have the Enhanced Nightlight Act and yet another hard deadline of June 12, 2009.

Ripple effect? Make that tsunami effect

So now we have another 115 days of analog transmission. The broadcasters must continue to pay the electric bill for two transmitters. The bill for some of these transmitters can approach $30,000 a month! Time lines and plans are in utter chaos. Contracts for tower crews to move antennas and transmission lines are under re-negotiation and, no doubt, will increase in cost.

The costs involved are simply enormous and the budgets are shattered. In the current economic environment, some facilities will go bankrupt. Check the stock prices of the major broadcast entities these days. Will Congress offer a bailout for the broadcasters and other entities affected by the “Change”?

DTV Reception issues

  1. Indoor antennas, or rabbit ears, may work for analog reception, but are almost useless for digital reception in the VHF band. The problem is the dipole rods used for the VHF TV band and their inherent response to reflections, or multipath, or ghosts.
    The “cliff effect” [abrupt falloff] of a digital signal may be appreciated, but is not understood by consumers. They only know the “graceful degradation” of the analog environment.
    The only adequate antenna for digital broadcast is an outdoor antenna, in this humble engineer's opinion.
    I have personally taken the time to go out in the field and measure the DTV transmissions of all the major stations in my local market (DMA). All of my measurements indicate field strengths in excess of what was calculated for coverage by the FCC. There is more than adequate signal available for a vast majority of the market. However, consumers must follow through at their end with an adequate receive antenna: outdoors, directional and elevated.
  2. Converter box documentation, instructions and operational ease generally are woefully inadequate for the average consumer.
  3. Channel “branding” is simply lost on the average consumer. Most consumers believe the digital transmission is on the same channel as the analog transmission. How many consumers actually know the digital transmission channels? I would hazard a guess of virtually none.