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thirteen WNET NEW YORK - Rebuilding after 9/11

Thirteen/WNET is New York City's PBS station. It serves a coverage area containing more than 18 million people. Thirteen's studios and offices are located on Manhattan's West Side. And, until Sept. 11, 2001, its transmitters and antennas were located on Tower One of the World Trade Center (WTC).

Technicians install one of two panel antennas on the 81st floor of the Empire State Building.

The station raised the money to convert to digital, and had already launched its digital transmission service two months prior to Sept. 11. On that day it lost all digital and analog over-the-air transmission capabilities. The West Side studios and offices were unharmed, so the station was able to maintain service to the 70 percent of the region's viewers who receive the signal over cable. For the remaining 30 percent, however, the channel went dark that day.

It will take years for the station to fully recover from the disaster, and an estimated $16.5 million to even come close to restoring its pre-9/11 level of service. In the recovery process, the two most important and immediate issues the station faces are securing the money to rebuild its transmission facilities and finding a suitable place for them.

Much of the money the station needs to rebuild will come from insurance claims, with the PTFP making up much of the difference. In 2002, the PFTP awarded the station almost $2.5 million. But neither the station nor its insurance companies had anticipated that it might someday have to replace the WTC as an antenna-support structure. Even if it were possible to do this, the cost would be enormous. So, since 9/11, the station has had to make do by transmitting from a series of lesser, temporary facilities until it procures a permanent facility.

Immediately after the disaster, the station scrambled to find a broadcast tower with space available for its antenna. The mast atop the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan would have been the ideal alternate site, but it is crowded with antennas and no space was immediately available there. The Armstrong Tower, located about 18 miles north of the WTC in Alpine, NJ, was the highest nearby tower available that could accommodate VHF television transmission equipment. Thirteen, along with several other displaced broadcasters, negotiated to secure space at Alpine. The station had a 1kW Larcan transmitter flown to the site and, by Sept. 16, established a minimal, low-power signal.

To improve the signal, Thirteen was allowed to commandeer a 10kW Thales transmitter that was on a truck en route to a different station. Thirteen also quickly acquired some panel antennas, trucked in diesel generators to power the transmitter and patched together a temporary studio-to-transmitter link (STL). By Sept. 26, the station was transmitting a respectable analog over-the-air signal from Alpine, achieving about 40 percent of its pre-9/11 coverage. But, as one might expect when establishing transmission facilities — even temporary, emergency facilities — in suburban New Jersey, the station ran into zoning issues that have led to litigation against it.

In the meantime, Thirteen and the other displaced stations are trying to establish transmission facilities in the Empire State Building. But this site has its own set of problems. The Empire State Building has been unable to supply adequate electrical power to its long-time tenant broadcasters, let alone the newcomers. Thirteen spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading Empire's electrical power capacity. And it is very difficult for newcomers to secure transmitter and antenna space. Newcomers and existing tenants must achieve a high level of cooperation to make any changes. Thirteen negotiated with WNYE-TV to temporarily share its transmitter space and installed a 15kW Larcan transmitter there. The station is currently negotiating for permanent space in the building.

Thirteen initially coped with the lack of antenna space on Empire's mast by installing two panel antennas on poles attached to setbacks on opposite corners of the building's 81st floor. This provided a major improvement over the Alpine coverage, but it was still highly flawed.

The most recent improvement for Thirteen's signal came about when WABC-TV arranged for its sister FM station to relocate its backup antenna from the Empire mast to the Alpine site. WABC-TV then installed a single-layer panel antenna in the newly opened mast space. Soon thereafter, Thirteen installed transmission line and a four-port combiner so that it could share the antenna with WABC-TV, WPIX-TV and WNYC-TV, each operating at about 8kW.

Today, Thirteen continues to negotiate to improve its over-the-air analog signal coverage. It will be quite some time, however, before it will again broadcast a digital signal over the air.

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