DTV gets a lift in Chicago

Things are finally looking up-way up-for digital television in Chicago with the installation of a new DTV antenna on the Sears Tower.

The 77-foot Dielectric antenna adds 22 feet to the Sears Tower's height, making it, at 1,730 feet, 2 feet taller than the World Trade Center in New York, according to building owner TrizecHahn Office Properties. But, more important, it means that WLS-TV and WMAQ-TV, the ABC and NBC O & Os in the country's No. 3 market, will finally be able to launch DTV signals.

"It's been a tough road," says WLS-TV Engineering Director Kal Hassan.

So far, FOX O & O WFLD-DT has been the only Chicago digital broadcaster, relying on a single 29-foot antenna installed on the Sears Tower by Andrew Corp. in March 1999. CBS O & O WBBM-TV launched a digital signal last year from the John Hancock Building, but its ch. 3 DTV assignment created interference with local cable systems. The station turned the DTV signal off and is still "aggressively seeking a solution," says WBBM-TV Director of Operations and Engineering Chuck DeCourt.

According to wls-tv's Hassan, remaining work on the new Sears Tower DTV antenna, including transmission-line installation, could be finished in three or four weeks. WMAQ-TV Director of Operations and Engineering Tom Powers hopes the DTV construction on the Sears Tower can be completed within 60 days. "There's quite a bit of transmission line internally in the building that needs to be installed yet," he notes.

The new antenna on the Sears Tower is a Dielectric "triple-stack" antenna design consisting of three separate antenna segments. It was installed in stages on the morning of June 4 by a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter. Stations WLS-TV, WMAQ-TV and WPWR-TV intermittently signed off the air during the three-hour process, which involved installing a mounting plate, then the bottom third of the antenna, then the top two segments of the antenna at once, with fueling stops for the Sikorsky in between.

The bottom part of the triple stack will serve WMAQ-DT, the middle section will host WLS-TV and the top part will radiate both analog and digital signals for WPWR-TV, an independent on ch. 50 that has received an adjacent ch. 51 DTV assignment.

Although the successful Sears Tower installation means that two more DTV broadcasters should debut this summer, the long-term DTV picture for all of Chicago's stations remains cloudy. The Chicago Digital Broadcast Committee (CDBC) has been negotiating for DTV antenna space with a real-estate developer who has proposed building a 2,000-foot skyscraper at 7 S. Dearborn St. in downtown Chicago. But that option seems less certain since the Chicago Tribune reported on June 2 that the developer, European American Realty, has been unable to secure financing for the $500 million project and has turned over the property's deed to a New York bank. The Tribune also suggested that developer Donald Trump, who had previously expressed interest in the 7 S. Dearborn St. project, would now swoop in and buy the property.

European American Realty President Scott Toberman didn't return a call for comment.

Dielectric Senior Vice President Dr. Oded Bendov, who has been hired by the CDBC to design an elaborate DTV antenna system for 7 S. Dearborn St., hadn't heard of the Tribune story when Broadcasting & Cable spoke to him last week. He said he had met with European American Realty representatives at NAB in April and was told that the developer was about to release financial details. But he hadn't heard from the developer since.

WLS-TV has grown so frustrated with the project's uncertainty over the past few months that it pulled out of the CDBC on June 5, although Hassan says the station has reserved the right to rejoin the CDBC if "circumstances change." He says the station had been discussing the move with its lawyers for several weeks, and it was pure coincidence that its departure coincided with the Tribune story and the successful Sears Tower installation.

"It's ironic," he says. "We've been looking at pulling out of the endeavor because it didn't look like it was going anywhere."