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Engineers Weigh Last-Minute DTV Decisions

Engineers from local stations and broadcast station groups were engaged in last-minute meetings on Friday to decide if---and where---they will turn off analog signals as originally planned on Feb. 17. There was a particular urgency to the decision-making process, as stations who wish to turn off on Feb. 17 have to officially notify the FCC by noon on Monday, Feb. 9.

Cox Broadcasting was still figuring out early Friday afternoon which of its 15 TV stations might turn off on Feb. 17 instead of waiting until the new analog turnoff deadline of Jun. 12., said VP of engineering Sterling Davis.

“It’s not a universal answer,” said Davis. “It will go market by market, and none of that has been totally decided yet.”

Some initial decisions had already been reversed, said Davis. Cox had heard from other stations in the Seattle market that they were prepared to turn off signals on Feb. 17 and had filed papers with the FCC indicating that KIRO, its CBS affiliate there, would go along with that plan. But other stations in the market had since changed their mind and decided to keep broadcasting analog. So as of Friday, Cox had reversed its plans for KIRO, too.

In general, Cox probably won’t be turning off early on Feb. 17, said Davis, though it was considering turning off some stations in April, after the March sweeps is over, particularly in markets where it operates duopolies. Markets that would go early were ones where stations didn’t have outstanding frequency coordination or technical issues, said Davis, who had already ruled out Atlanta and San Francisco for those reasons. He emphasized that every station in a market had to elect to turn off analog early for the process to go smoothly.

“All the markets have got to get coordinated, and it will be on the basis of what the whole market is doing,” said Davis.

Belo’s top executives were meeting Friday afternoon to decide its latest DTV plans, said VP of technology Craig Harper, who expected that “a couple markets will be going early.” Harper cited the high cost of operating analog UHF transmitters, which Belo uses in Charlotte and Austin and for four duopolies.

Engineers and GMs from Dispatch Broadcast Group were also meeting Friday afternoon to discuss whether Dispatch’s two stations, WBNS Columbus, Ohio and WTHR Indianapolis, Ind., could turn off early.

“Originally, we were going to go off as a market, but now I’m not sure what’s happening,” said WBNS director of engineering Pat Ingram late Friday morning.

WBNS only spends about $4500 in electricity each month to keep its analog VHF transmitter running, said Ingram, but other stations in the market were facing higher electricity and maintenance costs to keep analog running. They would have to weigh those cost savings versus the potential impact to ratings by turning off analog before the March sweeps period.

“From the WBNS standpoint, we can go either way,” said Ingram. “But other stations have a hardship.”

An interesting side note to the postponement of the original Feb. 17 analog turnoff date is that broadcast networks’ plans to eliminate their standard-definition satellite feeds in accordance with that date are unlikely to change. That’s because the second-generation HD satellite receivers that some networks are rolling out as part of their long-term distribution plans can easily output a standard-definition, 4:3 feed to support analog broadcasts, where necessary.

CBS, for example, had initially planned to discontinue its standard-definition network feed on the 3rd of March. That would give affiliates a couple weeks to figure out what ancillary applications the SD signal was supporting, such as feeding monitor walls in the newsroom, before CBS turned it off for good.

Although the analog turnoff date has now been pushed out to Jun. 12 and CBS O&O’s will continue broadcasting through that date, affiliates say that CBS is still going to discontinue its standard-definition feeds on March 3, as originally planned. Affiliates who are maintaining analog service will use their HD receiver/decoders (Harris NetVX 300 model receivers) to derive a standard-definition feed to pump into their analog transmitters.

“CBS is still on plan,” said Harper.

Harper expects that other networks will discontinue their standard-def feeds as well.

“We figured by March of this year, all the SD [broadcast] networks would go away,” said Harper, who adds that Belo stations nonetheless have maintained full 4:3, standard-def plants within their facilities to support ongoing SD operations if necessary. Belo will also continue to provide 4:3 standard-def downconverted feeds via fiber to its cable partners for some time.

Cox’s Davis also doesn’t expect that networks will change their distribution plans because of the new Jun. 12 date.

“If I was a network guy, why would I pay for additional satellite time that I don’t need?” said Davis. “I can’t imagine any network changing anything based on the analog shutoff date.”

Fox’s distribution plans aren’t impacted by the postponement, said Fox president of engineering Andrew Setos. The broadcast network, which currently transmits separate HD and SD satellite feeds, will in early April begin deploying new Motorola MPEG-2 satellite radios at its owned stations and affiliates that can simultaneously output a 16:9 HD stream and a downconverted, 4:3 standard-def stream.

The new Motorola receivers should be installed at all broadcast affiliates by mid-August, at which point Fox will stop transmitting its SD feed, as originally scheduled. Fox’s cable networks are rolling out similar technology to cable headends, as Fox aims to move to all-HD delivery for all of its programming by 2010.

Setos noted that SD signals have a wide range of uses at stations today besides feeding the analog broadcast transmitter, which is why Fox insisted on having an SD output on the new receivers. But going forward, it won’t have to use satellite capacity to deliver that functionality.

“There are other uses of SD, which were always contemplated,” said Setos. “We planned for it, and there are no changes for us.”

But at least one network is reassessing its distribution plans now that the analog turnoff deadline has been postponed to Jun. 12. ABC had initially planned to turn off its standard-def analog feed on Feb. 15 or 16 as part of its move to a new bandwidth-efficient MPEG-4 HD transmission system supplied by Tandberg Television. The new Tandberg receiver/decoders, which have already been installed at ABC owned-and-operated stations and affiliates, can output high-def MPEG-2 streams for local ATSC broadcast as well as 4:3 standard-def streams.

But the timing of ABC's "Accelerated HD Delivery" plan, which included the launch of a new dedicated Mountain-time zone HD feed, is now up in the air since a number of ABC affiliates will be maintaining analog operations through June.

ABC isn’t sure it can launch the new MPEG-4 HD feeds while maintaining its standard-def feeds, given its existing satellite capacity and other logistical issues, said Preston Davis, president of ABC broadcast operations and engineering.

The network planned to hold a conference call in the next few days with chief engineers from local affiliates to figure out “if their preference would be to stay on course or to delay the switch-over,” he said.

“If a lot of ABC stations go early, it may force us to go ahead and get into a single digital workflow,” said Davis. “If we straddle the fence [by transmitting both MPEG-4 HD and MPEG-2 HD feeds], it will really put a strain on our resources.”