535 stations now on-air with a digital signal

Nearly six months after they were told to do so by the FCC, 17 new stations are now on the air with a digital signal, according to the NAB, bringing the current total to 535. That number represents less than half of those commercial stations that were to be on by May 1, and includes more than 80 public stations that were not mandated to begin digital operation until May 1, 2003.

Among the new stations, ABC affiliate WTOK-DT in Meridian, Miss., signed on October 12, broadcasting at 4 kW ERP. It’s currently the only station on the air with a digital signal in the 185th DMA, although local NBC affiliate WGBC-TV is set to begin at even lower power (perhaps 500 watts) soon.

Chief Engineer Bard LeBrun said the station is using a Thales Broadcast 5 kW solid-state digital transmitter and Andrew antenna. Five miles of fiber connects the station with the local cable operator, Comcast Cable, carrying their analog and now digital signal.

Programming consists of upconverted NTSC shows and will soon include pass-through HDTV (720p) in primetime, supplied by the ABC network, LeBrun said. The station is using a TANDBERG TV encoder to get it on the air.

There is no plan for WTOK-DT to produce any HD programs (the majority of their internal plant is still analog) and there’s no agreement with Comcast to carry WTOK-DT’s HDTV signals.

Securing the money necessary for the transition (less than $1 million) was not a major problem, LeBrun said. As WTOK-DT’s owner, New York City-based Benedek Broadcasting Company also owns 21 other stations and was able to buy equipment, including transmitters, in bulk. The station’s biggest hurdle was physically getting the transmitter in the door. The Thales transmitter was one inch wider than the doorway to the equipment room.

LeBrun said WTOK-DT failed to make the May 1 on-air digital deadline because they were “waiting for the manufacturers to deliver product.” He also said that the availability of digital HD programming continues to be a concern with the Mississippi viewers he’s spoken with.

“Right now I know of four sets in our market and the station has two of them,” he said. “It’s like when DVD players were new, until there was software to watch, the units didn’t sell very well. Now, with virtually every movie available, they are the fastest selling consumer devices ever.”

LeBrun said that TV set manufacturers must agree to include the ability to decode at least the three major digital formats (1080i, 720p and 480i) if DTV is to succeed in the U.S. The issue is obvious in WTOK-DT’s own lobby, where the 1080i set receiving signals via satellite has trouble displaying 720p material. Most sets currently available must decode 720p to display 1080i.

WTOK-DT will continue to operate at low power for the foreseeable future, due to the high cost of operating the transmitter. LeBrun said that at 5 kW, it costs more to air-cool the digital transmitter than it does to run his 26 kW analog rig at full power. He’s installed a 15-ton air conditioning unit to get the job done.

The NAB said DTV signals are now being transmitted in 154 markets that include 91.97 percent of U.S. TV households and 46 percent of U.S. TV households are in markets where broadcasters are delivering four or more DTV signals.

For more information visit www.nab.org.

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