As the number of stations shutting off analog signals surpassed 400 last week, a sleepy stretch of Middle America offered a vivid reminder of the perils of unprepared viewers.
A series of tornadoes blew through Oklahoma in mid-February, and one of them bore down on the tiny Denison/Sherman (Texas)/Ada (Okla.) TV market, where Lockwood Broadcast Group's KTEN braced for the hit. The market covers the so-called “Texoma” region straddling the Texas-Oklahoma border; the Oklahoma side is rural, while much of the Texas side is more blue-collar and some of it is an exurb of Dallas, 70 miles to the south.
Whereas the other news station in the market, Gray TV's strong CBS affiliate KXII, shut off its analog signal Feb. 6, KTEN management decided to prolong its analog shutoff after reviewing the number of unprepared viewers in the area—not to mention the almost 3,800 local residents on the waiting list for converter box coupons.
KTEN, an NBC affiliate, ran multiple DTV tests. The most recent one, in late January, tallied about 30 trouble calls, a number that made management uneasy. “We were concerned based on people's calls and e-mails that they weren't ready,” says KTEN General Manager Asa Jessee.
Lockwood Group President Dave Hanna says the DMA's rural nature, and its vulnerability to tornadoes, figured into the decision to hang onto the analog signal. “We wanted to wait until we have a high level of confidence that people are ready,” he says. “We didn't want to rush to make the change.”
The tornado proved to be every bit as fearsome as expected, killing eight in the area and causing heavy damage. Around 10,000 households on the Oklahoma side lost power when the tornado struck on the evening of Feb. 10, and they did not get it back for more than three days.
Fortunately for KTEN, the twisters lost momentum about 15 miles from the station's transmitter, Jessee says. The station, headquartered in Denison, got by on backup generators.
Jessee says KTEN was in a position to shut off its analog signal by the Feb. 17 soft deadline, but will wait until closer to the new deadline in June. Doing so will cost about an extra $5,000 a month to keep both transmitters running.
But the decision felt like the right one when KTEN's analog signal was, for some in the No. 161 DMA, a lifeline during the storm, especially with cellphone service out of commission for many.
Its crew of reporters, fronted by main anchor Lisanne Anderson, provided field reports, and the station covered the event commercial-free throughout the day on Feb. 11. KTEN's weather coverage also airs on local radio, and is dispatched to subscribers via the WeatherCall telephone service. (KXII of course had wall-to-wall tornado coverage on digital TV, and was simulcast on radio as well. VP/General Manager Rick Dean says he had no indication that a significant number of viewers were unable to get the KXII signal.)
When KTEN held a fundraiser telethon at a local car dealer a few days after the tornado, Jessee says residents stopped by to thank station staffers for their help during the crisis. Phone calls and e-mails have streamed in as well. One e-mail from Feb. 10 reads:
I'm able to keep track of a dangerous, fast-moving storm in this vicinity because your station has not gone over to the digital signal. I have only very recently found employment after having been laid off and was not in the financial position to be able to buy a new TV, buy cable or even a converter box. I cannot thank you enough for being accessible to people in my situation.
Another viewer wrote to anchor Anderson directly on Feb. 11 to thank her for her coverage efforts and share her story of preparing for the tornado with her three children in the bathtub, praying as they covered themselves with pillows and blankets. She wrote:
Last night after the storm had passed we had no means of communication except a cellphone signal, and it was in and out. My husband remembered we had an old battery-operated TV in the barn, and he went out and brought it back to the house. We took batteries out of toys to make it work, the only channel that would come in…there was Lisanne's comforting face and we had weather all night until we fell asleep on the couch listening…
Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters President Vance Harrison says both KTEN and KXII did superb jobs of covering the tornado, and believes KTEN's analog signal played a vital role in informing the small minority who remain unprepared for DTV.
“Even if it's only 4% of the population, when it's something life-threatening, that's significant,” Harrison points out. “To their credit, they were all over it.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.