Last week’s request from the incoming Obama Administration to Congress that the Feb. 17 DTV deadline be postponed to allow more time for over-the-air households to prepare has sent a wave of emotion throughout many in the broadcast engineering community ranging from surprise to sullen resignation.
While few welcome “the prospect of leaving millions in the dark,” as Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, put it last week when reacting to the request, the consequences of delaying the transition for broadcasters are numerous and complicated.
“I think it (a delay) will blow up the whole transition from a technical point of view,” said Sterling Davis, Cox Broadcasting vice president of engineering. “This whole thing has been set up for a couple of years with elaborate planning. There are so many moving parts already in progress that it will be impossible to shift the date and have the scheduling hold. Period.”
Those moving parts involve a variety of finite industry resources, including tower crews and transmitter crews, as well as contractual agreements between stations and the companies providing those crews, and in some instances stations and the owners of the towers to which their antennas are mounted.
“We have worked in our market and adjacent markets to maximize these resources of crews so they can move from market to market in a coordinated way,” said Ardell Hill, senior vice president of broadcast operations at Media General. “Together we have taken into account coordinating equipment delivery, weather conditions, crew availability. Once that domino falls (a delay), the consequences ripple out in all directions.”
According to Hill, since word spread last week that President-elect Barack Obama had asked for a delay, some vendors of these services have been on the phone in a near panic. “There is recognition that contracts were signed months ago,” he said. “The vendors want to know if we are thinking we are just going to walk away from the contracts. The bottom line is it’s almost crisis in nature, the way some of my vendors are responding.” Hill added that there is no intention on the part of Media General to break any such contracts.
Some broadcasters even paid a premium more than a year ago to be at the front of the line for tower crew services for the February transition date, said John Mckay, manager broadcast sales at Radian, an Ontario-based, provider of tower crews. “Now all that is thrown out of the window because the time frame is moved,” he said.
Another related consequence of a delay is renegotiating tower leases. “In a couple of markets, I have to extend tower leases,” said Hill. “I have a signed contract. If I stay on the air (in analog from those towers), I have to renegotiate with that tower owner. I am across a barrel, not because he wants to take advantage of me but because he already has a new client ready to take that space once we get off.”
To complete the transition, many stations have postponed final transmitter work until the weeks immediately preceding the Feb. 17 deadline. The delay is understandable because this work directly impacts their bread and butter by reducing coverage area.
According to Dielectric Communications vice president of sales and marketing Roger Cote, many broadcasters have set up temporary analog transmitting facilities authorized to operate at reduced power to maintain their analog signal while work is completed on their final, full-power digital transmission infrastructure.
As originally planned, this work will coincide with the weeks leading up to the transition to minimize the effect of cutting off portions of the analog audience from reception due to reducing analog facilities, Cote said. With about one month to go before the scheduled transition deadline, many broadcasters are entering this final phase. However, if the DTV deadline is postponed, the few weeks of reduced analog service could extend into several months, a financial blow to stations already suffering from the effects of the recession.
“Honest to God, it’s going to kill us,” said a chief engineer from a major group-owned station who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re going down to about 60 percent power operating on a half transmitter. I can’t do that for the next four months going through two ratings books,” he said.
Perhaps the most obvious financial hit stations will take if the deadline is postponed is related to power bills. For years, broadcasters have operated simulcast analog and digital service as viewers have been given the opportunity to acquire new DTVs. Dual service means two power bills, which can run more than $10,000 per month in the case of high-power UHF stations and several thousand dollars monthly for VHF channels. Many looked upon Feb. 17 as an opportunity to shed much of this financial burden.
“Nobody has budgeted for these power bills beyond Feb. 17,” said Davis. “I was on the phone today with another engineer who’s looking at $45,000 in added power bills. You have some stations that are financially strapped, and in a depression with advertising off 40 to 50 percent. They will be asked to absorb this unbudgeted expense.”
Delay brings with it other consequences. Some analog equipment currently in use has been sold to parties out of the country with delivery deadlines based on it going out of service in the United States in February. Other analog transmitters keeping stations on-air have been nursed along to extend their life in anticipation of being pulled from service on Feb. 17. A delay will make this life-support act tougher as replacement parts dwindle.
A few stations may even run the risk of tower failures. “A limited number of stations has accepted the risk that their towers would be overloaded with DTV and analog antennas for a few weeks or months,” said Mckay. Postponing the deadline pushes back when crews can remove those analog antennas. “They were willing to accept that risk for a limited time. Now that the deadline may be extended, these structures could be exposed to early spring ice storms, a culprit that has brought down towers in the past,” he said.
But there’s an even bigger problem, according to Andy Suk, vice president of operations and engineering for Cordillera Communications. “I think the No. 1 impact is going to be consumer confusion,” he said. “We’ve almost brought that to a new level of science.”
Together broadcasters have spent nearly a billion dollars in free air time promoting the Feb. 17 date, according to David Johnson, director of technology for Belo-owned WFAA-TV in Dallas. This makes the prospect of changing the deadline all the more frustrating.
What has some broadcasters on edge is not knowing whether the date will be delay, and if so, how long. “The key thing is we need certainty as to whether the date will stick or move,” said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV). “That is the No. 1 issue for broadcasters. The worst thing is if this floats around in Washington, D.C., for a couple weeks.”
Still, there is an understanding among broadcasters of why the Obama Administration has asked for the delay. “I have greatest respect for the incoming administration and their concerns, but I am on the street living with my engineering folks,” said Hill. “We have to figure out how to make this work.”
A delay may be fraught with countless ramifications, but at the end of day it’s protecting the viewer that should be of greatest concern, said Johnson. “If this is really a train wreck and a delay can help prevent it, we are for it,” he said.