Stations Are Embracing Digital TV Subchannels

When broadcasters made the switch from analog to digital broadcasting on June 12, 2009, it came with the potential to offer more than one channel per station. It meant that stations might generate new revenue from ancillary services like weather, public service information and shopping at home. Stations could even complement their local newscasts with more in-depth reporting and alternative content related to the main channel.

However, over the years those weather, barker and shopping channels went largely ignored by viewers, partly because of the lack of interesting programming and also because in many markets consumers were not aware they even existed or how to access them.

Well, now it appears that after years of uncertainty, the majority of TV stations in the U.S. are now fully leveraging the ability to split up the 6 MHz of digital television spectrum into a main channel and one or more subchannels and putting them to good use.

From 2010 to 2011, the number of digital TV channels, including subchannels, increased by more than 80 percent, according to a new report from industry research firm SNL Kagan. The firm said that there are now 4,552 over-the-air (OTA) broadcast channels being delivered by 1,726 full-power digital stations, up 2,034 from 2,518 at the end of 2010.

This includes stations like WBBJ-DT, the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Tenn., which is now broadcasting CBS programming on a digital subchannel. The subchannel, which previously displayed live weather radar, has been expanded to broadcast CBS and MeTV (Memorable Entertainment Television, a network that showcases classic shows from the 50s through the 80s), as well as additional standard-definition digital newscasts.

The station’s main channel continues to broadcast half-hour newscasts at 11:30 a.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. On the CBS-affiliated subchannel, there are additional newscasts at noon, 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Another major boost to new OTA channels will be Mobile DTV, when it launches across some 600 stations later this year, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition (OMVC). These mobile channels will use a mere 3-5 MBps of the 19.6 MBps that stations have been given by the government.

The Kagan report said new multicast networks like Bounce TV, Live Well, Antenna TV and others, which expanded their reach by more than 600 stations, are one of the main drivers of the significant increase. In another trend, according to the report, Spanish-language multicast channels have nearly doubled to 216, with an additional 10 live, mobile DTV channels.

Also contributing to the rise in channels has been the multiplexing of two HD channels, including by the ABC O&O stations, which are doubling up primary channels with Live Well's HD offering.

The broadcast group with the most digital offerings is Ion, whose 60 TV stations offer up 211 digital and mobile channels. Coming in at number two is Sinclair, whose 59 stations offer up 160 channels. Rounding out the top five are Raycom (40 stations/107 channels), Gray Television (34 stations/97 channels), and NBC TV Stations (24/75 channels).