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Stations to ramp up digital TV

May 21, 1998

By Kim Crompton
Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane’s commercial TV stations expect to spend millions of dollars each over the next three years to comply with a federal mandate that they, along with all other such stations in the country, begin broadcasting digitally by May 2002. The local public television station, KSPS-TV, plans to make a similar capital investment, although it doesn’t have to begin transmitting a digital signal until the following year.

Digital television and its optimum application, the much-hyped high-definition television (HDTV), are the designated heirs apparent to current TV technology. They are said to offer stunningly clear digital images and theater-like, six-channel surround sound.

General managers and chief engineers for the TV stations here say that converting their old analog-technology infrastructures to accommodate digital signals will require installing new transmitters and antennas. They also will require building new studios and buying new in-studio monitors to accommodate the wider viewing format, or “aspect ratio,” of HDTV.

“We know there is a tremendous cost. We’re basically going to be building new television stations,” says Lon Lee, president and general manager at KHQ-TV, the local NBC affiliate.

Aside from the costs, numerous questions remain as to how some aspects of the technology will work and how soon extensive programming will be available. Also still unclear is how soon Inland Northwest viewers will have a choice of receiving the digital signals.

“We’re on a boat going through a fog. We don’t know where we’re going or what’s on the other side,” Lee says. “We have far more questions than we have answers. As a matter of fact, we have no answers and an entire book of questions.”

The good news for the stations here is that larger-market TV stations are leading the way through the thick haze. Under a timetable adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, major network affiliates in the 10 largest U.S. markets must have a digital signal on the air by next May. Commercial stations in all remaining markets—including Spokane, the country’s 73rd largest market—have until May 1, 2002, to do so.

Stations in the 10 largest markets, however, have volunteered to begin transmitting digitally by this November, rather than waiting until the first deadline next year, and a couple of stations already have begun sending out a digital signal. Several commercial stations in Seattle, the 12th-largest U.S. market, plan to air some digital TV programming beginning this fall, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal.

KOMO-TV, Seattle’s ABC station, and KING-TV, the NBC affiliate there, already have bought new digital transmitters, the newspaper said. Also, KCPQ-TV, Seattle’s Fox station, spent at least $20 million to build an all-digital studio, which it completed last fall, and expects to spend about $2.5 million more for a new antenna and transmitter, it said.

KIRO-TV, Seattle’s CBS affiliate, is the only major network affiliate in Seattle that plans to wait until November 1999 to air its digital signal, according to the newspaper.

Barry Barth, KREM-TV’s general manager, says that station expects to spend $2 million to $4 million just to be able to pass the CBS network’s digital signal through its facility. The station’s total conversion costs, counting all other expenses, are expected to be between $6 million and $12 million, he says.

Representatives for most of the other stations here say they’re looking generally at conversion costs of $5 million to $10 million, although only a portion of that money likely will have to be spent over the next couple of years to meet Federal communications Commission digital-transmission deadlines.

Claude Kistler, KSPS-TV’s general manager, says that Spokane’s public-TV station expects to spend about $1.7 million “just to meet the letter of the law in the least expensive way” before the deadline, and about $4.7 million overall. He says the PBS station already has begun asking its supporters for contributions to help cover some of the expenses.

Most of the stations here already have digitized portions Of their facilities. KXLY-TV, for example, has been running all of its commercial spots in a digital format since 1990, and KAYU-TV likewise has been running all of its commercials and promotional announcements from a computer hard drive since 1995. KREM-TV has added digital editing and playback equipment within the last two years, and KHQ-TV late last year spent $740,000 on new camcorders and editing equipment to convert its news operation to a digital format. However, the bulk of the conversion costs, for all of the stations here, are yet come.

WHY THE RUSH?

So what’s behind this federal regulatory rush to get TV stations across the country broadcasting digitally, given that very little digital programming is available yet to broadcast and there is no public clamor for HDTV?

Station managers here say the federal government, facing pressure to balance the budget, believes it can generate a pile of money by auctioning off frequency bandwidth that the stations currently are using to transmit their analog signals. The conversion plan calls for all of the stations to vacate that bandwidth in a number of years after an interim period of simultaneously broadcasting their analog signals on their current channels and their digital signals on new channels that have been assigned to them.

For example, KREM-TV, KXLY-TV, KHQ-TV, KSPS-TV, KSKN-TV, and KAYU-TV which currently occupy channels 2, 4, 6, 7, 22, and 28, respectively, have been assigned channels 20, 13, 15, 39, 36, and 30. By the time deadlines arrive for them to be broadcasting a digital signal, the stations are expected to be broadcasting equally with digital on one channel and analog on the other, but it isn’t clear yet which of the two channels each of the stations will occupy once they’ve completed the digital conversion. The current federal deadline for completing the conversion to digital-only transmission is 2006, but station managers here say they believe that deadline is unrealistic and may be pushed back.

KHQ’s Lee says the balanced-budget agenda that’s behind the digital TV push has turned the whole matter into a “political football.” KSPS-TV’S Kistler calls it “an unfunded mandate from Congress and the FCC.” They and other station executives here are skeptical that auctioning off the vacated broadcast “spectrum space” will generate the kind of revenue that the government is banking on, given the recent history of other such such auctions. Nevertheless, they are unanimous in their praise of the new digital technology and believe for the most part that TV watchers, once they get tuned into it, will find it stunning.

Tim Anderson, director of engineering for the KXLY stations here, says, “When people see this technology en masse, I think there is going to be a great demand for it.”

Mike Kelly, general manager at KAYU-TV, says, “Viewers will be given the closest thing to literally looking out a window. Rather than viewing and listening, it’s much more of an experience.” KREM-TV’s Barth says, “I think ultimately our viewers will get something they’ve never dreamed of seeing”—a picture that’s surprisingly sharp and clear.

Kistler was a bit more subdued than his counterparts at the commercial stations. Watching television is such a passive activity that “I don’t know if the typical consumer is going to get that excited about it, “ he says. For example, just because you might be able to see the stitches on a baseball while watching a baseball-game, “I’m not sure if that’s going to make baseball any more enjoyable,” he adds.

“I think ultimately it’s going to be a good thing,” says Kistler with lukewarm enthusiasm. “It’s going to take a while to get there. We haven’t been able to touch it and feel it, so it’s going to be hard to get people excited about it. It’s really going to be hard to explain to people.”

For now, HDTV sets, which boast the highest-caliber video and audio, are priced so high that they’re well out of the reach of most consumers. Most such sets displayed at the 1998 International Consumer Electronics Show that was held in Las Vegas recently were prototypes, ranging from “direct-view models to Jetsonesque wall-hanging plasma displays to big-screen projection modes with target prices starting at $7,000,” according to last month’s issue of Stereo Review magazine.

HDTV, however, represents the highest-resolution digital format, and consumers are expected to have other, less expensive options. Other sets will be digital, but won’t offer the same picture quality of a true HDTV model. For now, those other sets are being called standard-definition TVs, and they might or might not have a wide-screen display or Dolby Digital audio, the industry standard for home-theater applications.

CONVERTER BOXES PROMISED

Manufacturers also have committed to produce converter boxes that will enable digital signals to be converted to analog so they can be fed into current analog TV picture tubes. It’s unclear, however, just when those boxes will become available here.

It’s also unclear what impact the digital conversion will have on consumer-electronics retailers here. Some industry observers say they expect sales of analog sets to drop off as consumers hold out for the arrival of lower-cost digital models. However, strong market acceptance of the new technology, which has been described as the most significant industry advancement since the arrival of color TVs, could prove to be a boon to retailers. A trade association called the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association conservatively estimates that 30 percent of U.S. households will have digital sets by 2006.

Murray Huppin, general manager of Huppin’s Hi-Fi, Photo and Video, a longtime consumer-electronics store in downtown Spokane, says, “The important thing people need to recognize is all televisions will be compatible (with the new technology). They will all be able to play the (digital) signal with a set-top (converter) box. The TVs that people are buying now are not going to be obsolete.”

He expects that Huppin’s will begin carrying digital TV sets in about a year and that the sets’ prices will have come down dramatically by then. As for HDTV picture clarity, which he has observed up close, he says, “The best word I could probably use to describe it is sparkling.. It’s like watching through glasses that are perfectly corrected, perfectly sharp, perfectly focused. There’s no comparison.”

Inland Northwest broadcast-industry professionals, government representatives, and educators will have a good chance to learn more about the technology and the issues surrounding digital TV early next month. A “DTV Express” 18-wheel road show truck that’s making a 15-month, 40-city tour will be pulling into North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene for a week-long visit beginning June 8.

Visitors to the truck will be transported into three different environments—a living room of tomorrow, a classroom of the future, and a DTV station. They will interact with presenters in each area of the vehicle as new services made available by DTV are demonstrated, along with the equipment needed to make the transition to digital.

The “DTV Express” nationwide tour is being sponsored by the Public Broadcasting System and Harris Corp., a major manufacturer and supplier of television station transmitter equipment. Because of the display’s technical and educational focus, it’s not intended for the general public.

Thursday, May 21, 1998

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From → KAYU, KHQ, KREM, KSKN, KSPS, KXLY

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