Digital TV Date Etched In Water

It’s been kicking around Washington for the past few weeks, but it looks like Congress may indeed try to stand in front of the speeding Digital TV Express Train, wave its arms wildly and shout into the train’s loud whistle – “slow down!”

A number of reports late last week indicate that a key Republican U.S. Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce Committee), has ended her opposition to a move of the digital TV transition date from February 17th to June 12th, and that a vote on the compromise could come as soon as today.

With Democrats in the House in favor of the move, and President Obama already on record in favor of it, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of that new June 12th date.

But not only can those in Congress change their minds, or mount new opposition…the devil’s in the proverbial details.

And one of those details is jumping up and shouting at us.

From the article about the reported “compromise” in the Washington Post:

The bill would allow broadcasters to turn off analog signals before the June 12 deadline, and public safety agencies would be allowed to use those airwaves as soon as they are available.

Let’s read that first part again:

The bill would allow broadcasters to turn off analog signals before the June 12 deadline

Now, a number of broadcasters have turned off analog signals early, including two in the immediate OMW coverage area, Western Reserve PBS’ WNEO/45 Alliance and Mid-State independent WMFD/68 Mansfield.

To get FCC approval, stations like WNEO and WMFD had to provide detailed information on why the move had to be made early…involving various technical and even weather-in-Northern-Ohio explanations.

We obviously haven’t seen this “compromise” bill the Senate is expected to vote upon this week, but it sounds like all a station would have to do to shut down before June 12th would be to ask to do so. And thus, if we’re reading this right, they could go ahead and shut down on February 17th – as planned.

Now, we believe if the stations were allowed to do that with a new transition date, they’d have to run the requisite crawls and notices that they’re shutting down the analog signal – all required by the FCC for 30 days before the planned early analog shutdown. (Both WMFD and WNEO had to run these messages.)

So it may not have been a coincidence that one Ohio station operator is apparently thinking ahead.

On our drive into the Mahoning Valley last week, we happened to be watching TV for a while at a local business, and noticed that both New Vision CBS affiliate WKBN/27 Youngstown and Parkin Broadcasting(/New Vision LMA partner) ABC affiliate WYTV/33 Youngstown were running frequent, fast moving, identical crawls.

The crawls moved so fast, we can barely remember, but they appeared to specifically address the stations (by call letters and city of license) shutting down on February 17th. The crawls were not the generic DTV transition crawls usually run by stations.

So, we’re back to the question – if all the TV stations in a market got together and decided to stay with the February 17th date, the law (as reported in the press) would seem to allow that early transition – much like the one that took place in Wilmington NC in September, or the one that just happened in Hawaii.

Or, if one station wanted to go ahead and others wait, that would seem to be OK as well (though we suspect broadcasters will talk about this among each other in each market).

So…what stations will be left in analog on June 12th? Will that date basically be “the last stragglers turning off the analog”, give or take a “nightlight” station or three? We’ll see.

The local media weighs in on transition-related topics, with the original date under a month away.

The Youngstown Vindicator covers the recent power increase at Western Reserve PBS’ WNEO/45. From the article by the Vindy’s Shelby Schroeder:

(Western Reserve PBS’ Amanda) Donatelli said the station has called about 20 of the residents who registered complaints to inform them of the upgrade. Of those, only one still had difficulty receiving a signal, which Donatelli said could be attributed to an ineffective set of rabbit ears.

“The main thing we’re telling people is to re-scan for channels,” she said. “After they’ve done that process, they should be able to pick us up clearly.”

Anyway, it wouldn’t be a newspaper article about broadcasting without at least an error or five, so here goes:

WOUB switched to digital in September 2006, long before other stations were prepared for the transition.

Well, we’re pretty sure the Ohio University outlet – as much good work as it did – did not “switch to digital in September 2006”. It appears to be accurate that they have been running the post-transition WOUB-DT facility since (probably) then, but so have other stations.

Oh, unless they’re not being truthful with the FCC in their Digital Transition Update filings, it would appear WOUB’s analog facility is still on the air, and will run until the transition. So much for a 2006 “switch” as reported.

And as far as the FCC was concerned, WNEO’s 44KW signal on DT 45 *was* the station’s authorized full-power pre-transition facility (on 45). The Salem-operated station had been pumping out a more powerful signal than that on DT 46 for years, probably going back to the same time WOUB lit up its digital facilities.

The move to DT 45 – presumably done to expand the station’s range in the post-transition world – temporarily hobbled WNEO’s signal. But the Vindy article makes it look like the Western Reserve PBS folks were hoping to scrape along on the 44KW, when that was never the case.

Like many stations in the area, WNEO filed a timely “maximization” authorization on DT 45 to 500KW, a power level they expected to run post-February 17th. That maximization was approved, and then the station – not wanting to wait until February to go full-power, filed a special temporary authority with the FCC to go to 500KW early – which was approved on January 8th, and implemented this past week.

We realize all this technical stuff is hard for a newspaper writer to digest…particularly a general assignment writer who doesn’t cover this stuff daily.

But in this case, the article has a few glaring errors. Some were facts not explored above, others appear to be errors just brought directly into the article from the telephone interview with the WOUB staffer.

The Vindicator did do SOME digging – as they went into the official filing for the WNEO early maximization STA request, as we did, and noted the wide range of Mahoning Valley viewers complaining of trouble with the pre-increase 44KW signal.

Anyway, we’ll continue to watch…

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