Las Vegas Stations Ready For Digital

Las Vegas will be in the broadcast spotlight in April, when television executives and engineers convene there for the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference and exhibition. This year, five local stations, KLAS-TV, KVBC-TV, KTNV-TV, KLNX-TV, and KVVU-TV are already on-air with a digital signal or plan to be shortly.

At NAB2000, the sole station to be broadcasting in HD was CBS affiliate KLAS, said its CTO Jerry Agresti, and in the first days of 2002, it remained the only HD broadcaster in the city. To make the $2-million transition, it installed a new digital Harris PTC10P1 transmitter and a Microwave Radio Communications (MRC) TwinStream studio transmitter, with a Harris Flexicoder encoder, to transmit analog channel 8 and the adjacent digital channel 7. The station currently passes CBS' HD primetime lineup to an estimated 35 to 50 DTV-capable households in the area.

KLAS is keeping an eye on those numbers, with the aim of potentially producing local widescreen or HD programming. Represented by SpectraRep, it also offers datacasting spectrum for hire. Currently, the station is upgrading its internal signal processing from analog to ITU-R601 digital, which entails replacing the router, automation system, production switcher, and adding 7,000 square feet of newsroom, which will include desktop editing and nonlinear editing systems with server playback.

NBC affiliate KVBC did its digital upgrades in the opposite order. Chief Engineer Mark Guranik said that his station, which has been processing its internal signal in 601 since January 1999, plans to begin transmitting over-the-air digital by mid-May. To that end, it upgraded its A/C needs to accommodate a new Harris Platinum SDTV transmitter, and also upgraded its power transformers for additional power handling capability. Instead of broadcasting HDTV immediately, it plans to broadcast a digital standard definition signal. "The transition to HD will be when there's the demand," said Guranik, who noted that the new transmitter will allow his company to upgrade to 16:9 and HD very easily. "We'll look at other features, such as datacasting, as we go. There are a lot of avenues and

a lot of the market demands it." To transmit analog channel 13 and its new, adjacent digital channel 12, ABC affiliate KTNV installed its new Harris Platinum transmitter and a Jampro JAT-12-12/13 antenna capable of handling both channels. After several weeks of testing, the station plans to go online with its digital broadcast in May, said Director of Broadcast Operations and Engineering Ron Adair. He also noted that KTNV has installed an MRC TwinStream digital microwave, to get digital video from the studio to its transmitter site on top of nearby Black Mountain.

The digital transition will pass all of ABC network's weekly 20 hours of HD programming. The rest of the programming will be up-resed to HD by a combination of SD-to-HD upconverters from Tandberg and Miranda. The station will be capable of transmitting both ABC's preferred HD format, 720p, and 480p.

PBS station KLVX's original plan to be on-air with its digital transmission by December 31, 2001 hit a snag when its new Thales transmitter arrived in New York Harbor a couple of days after September 11. The delay forced the on-air date back to March, still a couple of months prior to the FCC deadline. Though PBS provided three or four service models to aid stations in their digital transition, General Manager Tom Axtell said planning was entirely local.

KLVX's digital transition is planned as a series of phases. Phase one, which cost a little over $1.3 million, was to get on-air with the transmitter, to pass through the PBS network service, which includes a primetime HD schedule and daytime multicasting. KLVX has cut costs by installing a liquid-cooled transmitter which, given the desert environment, Axtell believes will save over $12,000 a year in electrical costs. The station is also saving $500,000 by holding onto the existing antenna and putting the analog channel 10 and digital channel 11 signals through a combiner.

For the next phase, the station will migrate to local origination, recording and playing back programming from a server, which will require an all-digital master control. "That's a pretty significantly different business model," said Axtell. "If the cost of acquiring the equipment goes down, then we'll migrate to local origination more quickly. If the cost of the headend equipment remains high, we'll just wait until we hit a certain number of HDTV receivers. Both those variables will change over time."

The final phase will be to determine whether it's possible to replicate the translator network. "We serve 50,000 square miles in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Utah, in low population areas," said Axtell. "The FCC hasn't determined whether the current translator opportunities will be available or whether the rural people will be disenfranchised."

Fox affiliate KVVU, with analog channel 5, has seen a more time-consuming road to digital. Because of the terrain, its originally-assigned digital channel 24 only replicated 78 percent of its coverage area. After testing channel 9 (which is a station in St. George, UT, only 100 miles away, but shielded by mountainous terrain), the FCC allocated the new channel to KVVU. The station received its construction permit in September 2001, said Chief Engineer Jack Smith, who reported that Structural System Technology is building a new 140-foot self-supporting tower next to the existing channel 5 tower. New channel 9 equipment purchased includes a Thales Broadcast & Multimedia Optimum solid state transmitter and a Dielectric TW-9B9-R antenna.

Aiming for an October 1, 2002 on-air deadline, Smith said the biggest challenge is working around the elements. "Tower construction is going to be put off until September because of the prevailing winds and high temperatures," he said. In the summer, winds in the city can hit 30 mph and temperatures go up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The new tower will be built in sections at the bottom of Black Mountain and then transported by helicopter to the site, where workers will assemble it.

Though KLAS, KVBC, KTNV, KLNX, and KVVU have all charted their own courses, they have come together to notify all the local medical facilities of the frequencies they'll be using, so as not to interfere with the proper functioning of medical equipment, such as heart monitors. "We're still fiercely competitive," said Axtell. "But I'm seeing more cooperation in this market than I ever remember. We all know we have to--to survive."n

Debra Kaufman is a contributing writer for DigitalTV.