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A Massive Rebuild for Television

Local TV broadcasters and cable operators in the Gulf Coast area say rebuilding their stations and plant could take several months.

“I've been through the L.A. riots and the earthquake of 1994, and this is much worse,” says Tribune Broadcasting VP/Chief Technology Officer Ira Goldstone. Tribune operates a duopoly in New Orleans: WNOL and WGNO, both of which were flooded. Belo's WWL was the only station operational there after Katrina struck. (Pax's WPXL returned to the air on Thursday and is carrying WDSU programming.) Others shifted operations to sister stations or are dark.

None of the fixes will be easy. Cable technicians, for example, must wait for electric utilities to restore power to a neighborhood, replacing fallen line and snapped poles. Cable crews can move in quickly to rehang or replace their own fallen wires. Then they work at identifying fallen links to subscribers' homes.

One bright spot: Optical fiber is oddly resilient. While water might seep into the ends, the cable is filled with gel that keeps moisture from traveling. Technicians can cut two feet off the end of submerged fiber and splice it back into the system.

“Fiber is the strongest element of a cable plant,” says CableOne President Tom Might. “Cars run over it, no problem. It usually goes down when electric companies come in and they cut anything in their way. More of our cuts have come in the cleanup process than the storm.” But coaxial cable and electronics are more fragile.

Some Plant May Be Salvageable

The damage to Cox's New Orleans system is severe. Half the 270,000 subscribers are in areas swept by 4 to 7 feet of water. Much of the system is composed of aerial plant strung on poles 14 or more feet in the air. Still, there's plenty of underground fiber, copper feeder and equipment-filled vaults that spent days submerged.

Some of that plant may be salvageable. “As a lot of veteran cable guys know, sometimes when the cable dries out and the electronics dry out, it can be OK,” says Claus Kroeger, Cox senior VP of operations for the Eastern Division. But the only way to find out is to carefully examine each piece of the enormous puzzle: “You literally have to look at it foot by foot.”

Now that stations have evacuated all personnel and access to facilities is impossible, engineers can only guess at the state of their transmitters and stations. PBS Senior VP of Technology Ed Caleca, for example, isn't optimistic about the condition of WYES and WLAE, the PBS outlets in New Orleans. The two stations' facilities are located close to the levees that broke, and the transmitters are off the air.

Transmission facilities

Broadcasters believe it will be months before their operations return to normal in New Orleans. And that delay has less to do with the state of their facilities than with the greater problem of a flooded city besieged by health and safety problems. Goldstone, for example, is fairly certain that WGNO and WNOL's TV plant is OK because it is located on the third floor of the New Orleans Center. About 10 people stayed in the station during the storm and had to be evacuated last Tuesday. Despite flooding on the first floor, the building was sound.

For most TV stations, the key goal will be replacing and repairing transmission facilities. Some of the gear, such as studio-to-transmitter links, may simply need drying out, while other components will require replacement. One crucial factor that will delay the return of over-the-air TV signals to New Orleans is the amount of time it takes to get a new transmitter. It typically takes 60-90 days for a TV transmitter to be manufactured. Quincy, Ill.-based Harris Broadcast Division, a manufacturer of transmission products, is talking to its suppliers about ways to trim that lead-time to about a month. It may also ask customers that have transmitters on the production line to let those units go to New Orleans stations.

Nat Ostroff, chairman of transmitter supplier Acrodyne, says his company has several on hold for customers: “They've said they're willing to give those transmitters up for a station down South.”

One concern will be the towers, he adds: “The base of the tower may be unsafe because the ground beneath it could be unstable after being soaked.”

The FCC has already taken steps to help. Last week, it agreed to expedite any building permits, shaving weeks off construction timetables. It has also granted broadcasters the right to erect temporary antennas without prior authority from the commission. “Once we can get access to our facilities, we won't have to go through a permit process,” says Caleca. “I'm glad the FCC did that.”

Stations are finding many ways to get the new out. Tribune Broadcasting's two stations are operating out of Manship Stations' WBRZ Baton Rouge, La. WDSU sister station WESH Orlando, Fla., has also been helping out. When the New Orleans outlet was evacuated Aug. 29, continuing coverage was sent from WESH to WDSU's transmitter via satellite and rebroadcast to the area until the transmitter succumbed.

Challenge for DBS

While the DBS providers haven't suffered infrastructure problems, they do have the challenge of having to replace dishes and set-top boxes destroyed in the hurricane. According to DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsucci, that company is still figuring out its strategy but will make it as easy as possible for previous customers to get service again. DirecTV will also strike deals with other network affiliates in the region to ensure that New Orleans residents receive regional network signals until the local stations get up and running.

Some cable operators are optimistic. Says Wayne Davis, of Charter Communications, whose systems throughout Louisiana were knocked out by the storm, “It's amazing how fast you can put plant back up.”