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Tuning in to HDTV conversion

March 11, 2001

By Jim Kershner
The Spokesman-Review

So maybe you haven’t yet run out and bought an HDTV set for $2,000, but that doesn’t mean you can altogether ignore the issue of DTV (digital TV).

Because it’s coming soon, and you can’t do anything about it.

Put simply, DTV is the nation’s new digital broadcasting standard, and HDTV (high-definitionTV) is the new generation of high-resolution TV sets which take advantage of it.

All commercial TV stations must be broadcasting digitally by May 2002. For them, the problem is massive: Every station in the country must spend millions on an upgrade.

Here’s an update on how the local stations are coping:

KXLY-4: This is the only local station that already has its DTV signal up and running. It has been broadcasting on Channel 13 for a year. The only catch is they still don’t have a whole lot to broadcast.

Right now, ABC supplies only “NYPD Blue” in HDTV, along with the occasional Disney movie or sports broadcast. The rest of the time, KXLY’s DTV tower sends out a demonstration video.

Yet at least KXLY is ready and able to deliver the DTV content as soon as the entire network schedule becomes available, which shouldn’t be too far down the road. When that happens, KXLY will be airing two simultaneous TV stations, on channels 4 and 13. That will continue through 2006, when all regular TV signals, including KXLY’s channel 4, will be cut off.

“That’s just the way it is,” said KXLY general manager Steve Herling. “It’s a huge expense. We’re already into the $3 to $5 million range.”

KREM-2: CBS already sends out most of its prime-time schedule in digital, but KREM is not yet able to deliver it.

John Souza, KREM’s director of engineering, said both KREM and sister station KSKN will make the May 2002 deadline – but it won’t be easy.

The problem is logistical. They must install two new digital transmitters on Tower Mountain, and Tower Mountain is covered with snow all winter. That means most of the work will have to be finished this summer.

Souza estimated the final bill at something approaching $8.5 million. But the results just might be worth it in the long run, he said.

“Once you see true HDTV, you’ll be a believer,” he said.

KHQ-6: This station just moved into spotless new digital-ready headquarters this weekend – but that doesn’t mean they’re broadcasting in digital yet.

General manager Lon Lee said that everything will be ready by May 2002, right on deadline, but maybe not much before. They have the same problem that KREM has: They need to get a digital transmitter up on a tower.

Even if the transmitter was running, there wouldn’t be much to show. The only NBC offering in digital is “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

KSPS-7: Public broadcasting stations have been given an extra year to convert, until May 2003. But even that is a significant hardship for revenue-strapped public stations.

General manager Claude Kistler said it will cost $2.7 million to fully convert to digital – and KSPS simply doesn’t have it. They’re hoping to get help from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, a federal agency.

“We have a grant application in, which would fund 40 percent of it,” said Kistler. “If we don’t get it this year, we’ll put in for it again in the following year. If we don’t get that, we feel we’ll be in critical shape.”

They would have to try to do a bare-minimum conversion for $1.2 million, but even then, they would have to raid their entire capital budget.

“Then what happens the next day, and the day after that?” said Kistler.

And from the consumer side…

“We’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of HDTV sets,” said Murray Huppin of Huppin’s Hi-Fi, Photo and Video in Spokane.

Yes, it’s true – sales are picking up. According to Brill’s Content magazine, only 125,000 sets were sold in 1999, but 625,000 were sold in 2000.

Still, this constitutes only a fraction of the market. Altogether, 25 million TV sets were sold in 2000.

Because HDTV shows are still rare, Huppins said that most of the purchasers are using the digital TVs for playing DVDs on high-end DVD players.

Meanwhile, the prices are dropping, if not precipitously. You can find HDTV sets for under $2,000 now, down from $8,000 a few years ago. Also, digital converters – which allow any TV, including your regular TV, to accept a digital signal – have just dropped from about $1,000 to $799.

Prices won’t plummet, however, until the public finally embraces the format. Huppin believes we’re on the verge.

“I think it’s going to start heating up very soon,” he said. “I think it will be one of those deals where all the sudden, it will just click.”

Meanwhile, regular TV signals will be broadcast alongside the digital signals until the end of 2006. At that point, you’ll have to buy either a digital converter box for your regular TV, or buy an HDTV set that has a converter built-in.

We’ll be revisiting this subject periodically through the year

Sunday, March 11, 2001.


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