Launching The First Digital Wave

UPDATE 2/17/09 9:43 AM: The FCC has released a final list (PDF file) of stations ending analog operations today or earlier. The affected stations are highlighted in red.

And we learn from that list that Wheeling’s WTRF/7 is listed as an “enhanced nightlight” station, contrary to what we reported below. That apparently means the switch from analog channel 7 to digital channel 7 won’t happen today, since the analog signal will continue for the next 60 days with DTV transition and emergency information.

We’ll see how that pans out later today.

Our original item is below….

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The first wave of early analog TV shutoffs has begun, as far as stations serving Ohio viewers are concerned.

Well, sort of, as Gray NBC affiliate WTAP/15 in the Parkersburg/Marietta market actually stopped simulcasting digital programming on analog channel 15 immediately following Monday night’s 11 PM newscast. (We’ll get around to that “early date” in a moment.)

At 11:35 PM, WTAP vice president/general manager Roger Sheppard reminded viewers that no, he’s not Jay Leno and they weren’t watching “The Tonight Show”, which went on uninterrupted on WTAP’s digital side.

For around 20 minutes, Sheppard talked about the station’s transition, the digital transition in general, and urged people to call both nationally and locally if they still needed help. He joked that he hoped the analog 15-only audience was the “smallest audience” he ever had to address.

And he was open and talkative about many other issues..for which we thank him as well, as Mr. Sheppard took time out of his weekend schedule to answer some of our own questions in E-mail. On Monday night’s broadcast, he also invited viewers still hanging on in analog to E-mail him with their questions.

At about 11:55 PM, after the Message From The Boss, WTAP’s analog channel 15 launched into the beginning of 2 weeks of so-called “nightlight” programming, with a repeated 8-minute loop of nationally-produced DTV transition information in both English and Spanish. The station says the loop will end around March 3rd, when analog channel 15 gets shut off for good.

Why February 16th, as opposed to the 17th?

It turns out that it’s about as we suspected…the back and forth between Gray’s lawyers and the FCC ended up with the thought that the Gray stations should adhere to the February 16th date, the analog stations getting off the air (ending regular non-nightlight programming) *before* February 17th.

This Associated Press article has more details:

Gray applied to keep the Feb. 17 date for most of its stations, but the push-back from the FCC left it with 14 that could. As a final twist, Gray over the weekend decided to turn those off on the 16th, some in the afternoon and the rest at midnight, because its lawyers interpreted the rules as saying analog should be “off the air by the 17th” rather “go off the air on the 17th.”

No matter – the deed has been done, and we note a WTAP web poll…which says some 17 percent of viewers who took part say they’re “not ready” for the transition. Not only is the poll entirely unscientific, its respondents all have access to a computer and the Internet. We’ll see if that number actually MEANS anything in the next few days.

As we mentioned earlier…we’re technically not sure the WTAP move Monday night is the “first wave” of the now-early analog shutoffs, or if it’s more in line with what stations have filed to do since mid-2008 (a la WMFD/68 Mansfield and WNEO’45 Alliance) under the pre-moved-transition date rules.

We’ll count WTAP and the Gray stations in the first category, for all the FCC maneuvering the company had to do over the weekend to switch this week.

Next on the shutoff list in the region, and we mean “next”, is West Virginia Media CBS affiliate WTRF/7 Wheeling WV – which also services a chunk of the Ohio side of the Ohio Valley in Steubenville and nearby areas.

WTRF’s website now says the station will pull the analog broadcast on channel 7 at 12:30 this afternoon. Yes, we said “this afternoon” (and for our travel schedule, we hope they are correct!).

Unlike WTAP, it looks like WTRF will actually be moving its temporary digital signal to a full-power permanent home on RF channel 7. At least one comment on the item we linked above says the station has already been testing that configuration as recently as last weekend…with good reception as far north as Canton.

We’re very much watching this one…for it may be at least a little indicative of what Cleveland Fox affiliate WJW/8 will encounter in its move to digital channel 8 at the newly-moved June 12th transition date.

It’s not exactly a perfect comparison. WTRF is leaving behind a both a hobbled analog signal on 7, and a puny STA digital signal on UHF 32. It’s no wonder they’re sprinting to make the transition.

WJW has been doing fine with a full-power pre-transition digital signal on UHF 31, with few if any complaints. Also, on either UHF 32 or VHF 8, the WJW digital signal has to cover a much more forgiving terrain than WTRF’s signals have to cover…

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