WNEO’s Continuing Transition Work

UPDATE 12/22/08 10:08 AM: OMW hears from Western Reserve PBS that Time Warner Cable is indeed now using the station’s digital feed to feed the station to its analog cable subscribers.

It’s not known yet, however, when (or if) TWC’s former Adelphia systems in the Cleveland area will add the HD version of WEAO/49.

TWC systems in other parts of Northeast Ohio already carry the HD feed of Western Reserve PBS. When Time Warner took over the Adelphia systems, it added the HD feed of WEAO to the paper lineup cards almost immediately, but never actually added the station for former Adelphia subscribers.

The addition has become somewhat more critical for Western Reserve PBS, because of the recent end of the 24/7 PBS HD feed – which basically turned the digital/HD sides of WNEO/WEAO and Cleveland’s WVIZ/25 into a simulcast until the past month or so…

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After switching one of its two signals to digital-only, Western Reserve PBS still has more to do.

And as expected, the Kent-based PBS outlet has officially filed to ask for an early 500 kW power increase for Youngstown market outlet WNEO/45 Alliance, which shut off its analog and original digital signal in mid-November in favor of its previously-approved 44 kW digital signal from its tower in Salem…a digital signal move to the former analog 45.

Like many local stations, WNEO had already filed for what the TV engineering/FCC folks call “maximization”, aiming to take advantage of the maximum allowed power for a digital facility.

In WNEO’s case, the increased power level of 500 kW got FCC approval for a construction permit recently…but that permit, as we reported earlier, specified that it couldn’t go on the air until the digital transition, late in the night on February 17th/morning of February 18th next year.

Last week, WNEO parent Northeastern Educational Television of Ohio, Inc. (Western Reserve Public Media) filed a request for a special temporary authority – to light up the station’s 500 kW construction permit power level before the February digital transition.

Despite the fact that a few fortunate souls even far afield from Salem have been pleasantly surprised at the current 44 kW facility’s performance, the new signal has also generated a host of viewer complaints from any number of people directly in the Youngstown/Warren area – the target market for WNEO/45.

The Western Reserve PBS folks helpfully point this out in detail, in the filing (PDF file) asking for the early 500 kW power-up:

Transition Related Viewer Reception Difficulties. Since November 19, 2008, when WNEO ceased analog and pre-transition digital broadcasts, WNEO’s call center has received roughly 150 calls from over-the-air viewers reporting reception problems.

The station’s call center staff attempted to determine the number of reception problems that were caused by viewer errors, and found there were very few, if any.

NETO believes that the majority of viewers who have contacted the call center cannot receive the WNEO-DT signal because of the signal strength of the post-transition 44 kW facility. In addition, the station has received several dozen e-mails from viewers who also reported similar reception issues.

Attachment A (found in the linked PDF file) lists locations where viewers have complained about the interim signal. The list pretty much includes every community in the Youngstown/Warren market including – and this is odd – both Alliance, WNEO’s city of license, and Salem, the location of WNEO’s transmitter site.

(We’re no engineering experts, but we could see terrain issues in there, somewhere, causing difficulties even in those two communities.)

Meanwhile, Western Reserve PBS has one other digital problem on its plate – and it’s a problem many other stations have.

Though it recently switched digital 45.1/49.1 to run the station’s regular schedule in upconverted SD and many PBS shows in HD, the station has a number of PBS programs it does not run live off the satellite – and has to record for later use.

Though shows like “NewsHour” and PBS prime-time shows are aired by WNEO/WEAO live in pattern, in HD, off the PBS satellite feed – the following shows are recorded and converted:

Nature
Nova
Antiques Roadshow
Austin City Limits
Soundstage
This Old House Hour
All kids programs that are fed in HD, which the station is not airing in HD
All how-to programs

The good news is that this situation is temporary.

Western Reserve PBS station manager Bill O’Neil tells OMW that the station is readying the ability to record/timeshift PBS shows in HD:

We have HD capable servers in place. We are now moving to upgrade our station router to HD capability. We have quotes and are about ready to order. We’d like to have it all in place by February 17th.

It’s a similar problem to one faced by commercial stations, which are having to deploy HD recording/timeshifting capability to run syndicated programs in HD.

Mr. O’Neil also tells us that they’re awaiting word on when Time Warner Cable will, as it has with other stations, use new equipment to create a new analog feed for cable viewers – pulling a “center cut” from the station’s digital/HD feed to drive analog cable channel 9 (in Cleveland).

TWC is apparently now using this method to create the analog/downconverted feed for a number of local stations that we don’t believe have a direct fiber feed, including CW affiliate WBNX/55 and the other Northeast Ohio PBS affiliate, WVIZ/25.

(WVIZ just converted its 25.1 digital channel to the same mixed feed WNEO/WEAO has been using…we’re told that the 24/7 PBS HD feed was pulled nationwide last Wednesday.)

Though the goal is not necessarily to improve analog picture quality – it’s to ensure continued carriage for analog cable subscribers after February 17th – the move has dramatically improved picture quality for the stations listed above…at least in our eyes.

As far as the 500 kW pre-transition upgrade for Western Reserve PBS’ WNEO/45, Mr. O’Neil tells us:

We have high hopes that the FCC will move quickly on the STA for WNEO’s power. Medical facilities have been notified as required by the CP. The transmitter manufacturer has indicated the ability to provide an engineer quickly to “turn up the juice”.

Of course, even if the FCC doesn’t act quickly, WNEO will be able to make the power increase at the February 17th transition…

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