02.20.2008 12:00 AM
A Tale of Two Borders
OTTAWA
Could U.S. border stations lose viewers to foreign analog TV stations after broadcasters shut off analog on Feb. 17, 2009? It depends on which border broadcasters you talk to. Those at northern U.S. border stations are not particularly concerned about losing viewers to Canadian analog TV channels. But along the border with Mexico, U.S. broadcasters are plenty worried.

Ask U.S. broadcasters on the border with Canada if they are fearful about losing viewers after the analog shutoff date, and chances are that you’ll be answered with a surprised stare.

“This wasn’t even something I had ever thought about before, since we do not deal with our potential Canadian audience,” said Jeremy Dietz, research director for KCPQ, the Fox affiliate (Channel 13) and MyNetworkTV affiliate KMYQ (Channel 22) in Seattle, which lies across the border from Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city.

“We get no ratings for them, and have no idea how many of them are watching us,” he explained. “And I don’t think we have any current advertisers that have a specific goal of reaching certain Canadian areas. So it’s not something we would be too concerned about, from a sales perspective.”

Further east, though, one Buffalo, N.Y., station sees a silver lining to the end of analog.

“I think the digital transition will increase overall TV viewership,” said Nick Magnini, general manager of WUTV, the Fox affiliate in Buffalo, (Channel 29). WUTV has long been popular with Canadian viewers in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. “You don’t spend $1,000 or more on a new HDTV and not commit more time to watching it.”

Is he worried about Canadian analog stations scooping part of WUTV’s viewers after Feb. 17? “It’s too early to tell,” Magnini said. “I think it will take a few years before we find out.”

That said, it seems unlikely that Canadian cross-border stations will pose any threat to U.S. broadcasters. One reason is content: Canadian networks get most of their domestic ratings from American imports. However, they do not broadcast as many American shows as U.S. networks do, and they lack U.S. sports and local newscasts. Meanwhile, Canadian programming is not even popular with Canadian audiences, with a few exceptions such as the sitcom “Corner Gas,” and the perennial favorite “Hockey Night in Canada.” As a result, there are few reasons for American viewers to tune to Canadian stations.

RF issues were resolved in 2000 when Industry Canada, the country’s economic development agency, signed a Letter of Understanding (LOU) with the FCC, which devised a table of mutually acceptable DTV allotments within 250 miles of either side of their shared border. It took four years to formulate the LOU, which includes procedures for notifying each other of proposed DTV licensing and transmissions. Interference is generally not an issue for stations on either side of the line, thanks to a longstanding tradition of cross-border cooperation.

In May 2007 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission voted to shut down the country’s analog TV service Aug. 31, 2011; but unlike in the United States, broadcasters will be required to transmit programming in hi-def.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

In contrast to their northern cousins, U.S. broadcasters along the Mexican border are very worried about losing viewers to Mexican stations.

There are several reasons for their concerns: First, unlike the Canada-U.S. border, where most viewers get their TV from cable or satellite, a great number of U.S. viewers close to Mexico rely on over-the-air transmissions.

“Brownsville, Texas, is the most heavily dependant on terrestrial transmissions, percentage-wise, of all U.S. TV markets, based on data from Nielsen,” said Craig Brush, president and general manager of PBS station KCOS (Channel 13), in El Paso, Texas. “My own market ranks second to Brownsville, in terms of off-air reliance. The cause of this over-the-air reliance is economic; the incomes are lower here than in the rest of the United States.”

“We estimate that about 50 percent of our audience watch us over the air,” said Peter Hoekzuma, chief engineer of KVEO (Channel 23), the NBC affiliate in Brownsville. “We also estimate that about 60 percent of our residents is either Spanish-speaking or bilingual, so there is quite a viewership for Spanish-language TV here.”


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The home of KNVO, the Univision affiliate in McAllen, Texas, along the border with Mexico. Broadcasters in the area are concerned that McAllen residents will turn to analog channels from Mexican broadcasters still transmitting in analog after Feb. 18, 2009.
The obvious concern is that Mexican TV stations will scoop Spanish-speaking U.S. viewers after Feb. 17, 2009, especially from U.S. Spanish-language broadcasters such as Univision or Telemundo. In an effort to head off this situation, in December 2007 Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) filed S.2507, the Digital Television Border Fix Act, in Congress. If passed, the legislation will allow the FCC to extend the DTV transition deadlines of U.S. stations within 50 miles of the Mexican border for up to five years, so that U.S. border residents will continue to have access to public safety broadcasts via U.S. analog TV signals.

“This legislation will ensure that Texans living along the border will not lose access to public safety communication messages sent through television stations,” Hutchison said.

BORDER STANDOFF

It’s an argument that resonates with Philip Wilkinson, chief operating officer for Entravision Communications Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based station group that owns 48 U.S. broadcast stations, mostly affiliated with Univision or TeleFutura.

“When the San Diego wildfires broke out, we covered it wall-to-wall, while the stations across the border in Tijuana only did so on a very limited basis,” he said. “As well, they lacked the kind of evacuation and public safety information that we provided—information that was critically important to our viewers, including Hispanics watching over-the-air TV.”

Despite this argument, there’s little doubt that competitive pressures are driving S.2507. Southern U.S. border broadcasters don’t want to see their audiences siphoned off by Mexican analog stations, and not just in Spanish. After all, Entravision operates two English-language analog stations just across the Mexican border. Fox station XHRIO (Channel 2) serves the Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen market in Texas, using 100,000 kW of power from its site in Reynosa, Mexico. Meanwhile, Entravision’s MyNetworkTV station XHDTV (Channel 49), broadcasts into San Diego using 3 MW of power from Tecate, Mexico.

The most interesting example of Mexican channels targeting U.S. English-speaking audiences is Fox station XETV (Channel 6). An English language station since it was launched in Tijuana in 1953, Televisa-owned XETV’s studios and offices are in San Diego, but the transmission site is south of the border.

As a licensee of Cofetel, the Mexican broadcast authority, XETV is exempt from the Feb. 17, 2009 DTV deadline. When the day arrives, “It will be very interesting, because while we will have our digital signals, we’ll also have the ability to use our analog signal as well,” said Richard Doutré Jones, vice president and general manager of the station. “We don’t have to give up analog, because we’re in Mexico.”

At press time, Jones didn’t know if XETV would maintain simultaneous analog and DTV feeds post-Feb. 17, 2009, or re-use its analog spectrum for other purposes. But if XETV and other Mexican border stations persist in targeting U.S. audiences with analog, KVEO General Manager Bill Jorn won’t take it sitting down.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” he said. “If XHRIO broadcasts English analog signals into my market after Feb. 17, 2009, I will counter it with my own analog signals as well.”

Clearly, unless S.2507 passes, Feb. 17, 2009 could be a tense day for broadcasters along the U.S.-Mexico border. Small wonder that southern U.S. border broadcasters are keeping a close eye on the bill’s progress, and praying for a last-minute reprieve.


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