Skip to main content

TV's digital pioneer

Last month, Capitol Broadcasting's Jim Goodmon ponied up nearly $1 million for spectrum the FCC is carving out of frequencies once reserved for television. To many in the industry, he may seem nuts. Capitol was one of only three broadcast groups to buy licenses in the government auction, and Goodmon himself admits that he has no idea how to use the spectrum.

But Goodmon, whose grandfather A.J. Fletcher launched WRAL-TV Raleigh, N.C., in 1956, has never been afraid to take a plunge. In 1996, he made the family-owned station the country's first digital broadcaster. "I like being first, and I believed at the time the digital transition was going to happen a whole lot faster."

He admits to being disappointed by the slow pace of the DTV transition, but it hasn't stopped his bringing new digital services online at WRAL-TV and four sister stations serving Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington. (Capitol also owns WRAL-FM.)

While many station owners fret about the cost of DTV facilities and wait for the networks to supply programming, Goodmon has created many services. And he hasn't waited for the government to grant him cable carriage: By developing quality HD and multicast programming, he has been able to strike carriage deals with the local Time Warner system, which views his digital programming as an enticing value-added service.

Among WRAL-TV's offerings: simultaneous transmission of CBS HD programming and a separate local news channel in SD. WRAL-TV also broadcasts 10 Carolina Hurricanes NHL games in high-definition. "Hockey is so much better in HD; it really adds a whole new dimension: the puck."

Famous local minor-league baseball team Durham Bulls, which Capitol also owns, will be seen in standard definition on WRAL-TV sister station WRAZ-DT.

As other stations struggle to devise a game plan for datacasting, a complementary business possible with DTV, WRAL- TV updates news reports with datacasts to PCs equipped with digital receiver cards. Following the 9/11 attacks, WRAL-TV combined all its digital services to offer CBS coverage in HD, local church services in standard definition, and datacasts listing local business and school closings.

Last month, Goodmon paid $888,000 for 12 of the new licenses covering North Carolina metro markets for spectrum now used for TV chs. 54 and 59 and ch. 55, the so-called C- and D-blocks of the 700 MHz band. "I think they will be part of the digital transition."

His aggressive plunge into DTV has set the example for the industry, says David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, the DTV trade group. "Jim is the person everyone looks to as the example to make digital TV happen."

Grandfather A.J. and uncle Fred got into the radio business in 1939 at the suggestion of Frank, another of A.J.'s sons. As a young lawyer for the Federal Radio Commission, Frank Fletcher helped draft the regulations implementing the Communications Act and creating the modern FCC. Later, he helped found Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, still one of Washington's top communications law firms.

Goodmon isn't shy about criticizing the FCC for failing to grant dual analog/digital carriage during the transition. "If the goal is getting digital TV into the homes of 85% of American homes, I don't see how that will happen without dual must-carry."

But he also takes broadcasters to task for failing to make public-interest commitments that would justify cable carriage. "Digital stations should have the obligation to provide public-affairs programs, and we should have an industry code of conduct."

Even if the digital transition hasn't taken off as quickly as he hoped, Goodmon has no regrets about embracing the new technology. "We need this transition to stay competitive," he explains. "It's no different than going from black-and-white to color or from propellers to jet engines. It's just a way to stay in business."