All Digital, No Legacy Building The DTV-Only Station

Lewis Cosby, president, WMAK-DT in Knoxville, TN, is used to building television stations. After all, he and his partner, South Central Communications, started the WB and CBS affiliates in town. He is intimately aware of what it takes to launch and maintain a successful station. So when Cosby and South Central Communications decided to build another station in Knoxville, they thought it best to go digital--all digital. WMAK-DT Channel 7, which launched on July 31 of this year, has no analog operations. It is completely digital from the ground up.

How WMAK became a digital-only station involves a complex series of FCC allocations and displacements. “South Central Communications and I applied for a license in 1996 for analog channel 26,” said Cosby. The FCC, however, decided to give the channel to the local ABC affiliate in Knoxville as its digital allocation. The Commission allowed Cosby and South Central Communications to amend their application for another channel. “We amended it for channel 25 as an analog station,” said Cosby. “And then, during this conversion of people going to digital from analog, a station in Nashville upgraded their digital allocation on channel 25 and again displaced us.” At this point Cosby and South Central Communications were running out of open analog channels. “So in 2000 we said, ‘Let’s just amend our application and go for digital only.’ We figured we were going to go digital anyway, so we decided to find the best piece of real estate we could get. And we chose channel 7, which is a VHF station.”

VHF digital-only stations are very sought after, especially in the high bands--7 through 13. Cosby and South Central Communications amended their application and proposed a digital-only service on channel 7. After three years, the FCC allocated the station to Knoxville and Cosby and South Central Communications applied for it in March 2004, eventually receiving approval from the Commission.

Planning Ahead

Even before they applied for channel 7, Cosby and South Central Communications undertook planning for WMAK-DT. As early as January of this year, they were talking to several integrators to help them design and build the studio and transmission facilities. Eventually, they chose Harris for the integration. “We opted to go with Harris because we were going to be building the facility from scratch and had to be on the fast track to do this,” said Cosby. “So, talking to someone that handles both the transmission and the studio side of it, we had only one company that was accountable to meet our deadline [--Harris].”

Harris started delivering equipment to WMAK in April of this year. WMAK had already modified an existing structure in Knoxville for the studio, and it already had a tower on Sharp’s Ridge, where an antenna farm for most of the television stations in Knoxville is located. “On July 21, the Commission approved our construction permit and ten days later, we were on the air,” said Cosby.

As the integrator for the project, Harris did most of the work for WMAK. “We did the selection and design of the equipment for the studio as well as transmission side,” said Dave Glidden, director, television broadcast products and services, Harris. “We designed the system, did all the wiring and integration work, and installed it on site.”

Some of the systems Harris installed for WMAK include a Platinum VHF solid-state transmitter (the antenna and transmission line are from Dielectric), an ADC-25 automation system, a PSIPplus PSIP Manager, a Monitor Plus integrated test equipment rack, APEX ATSC exciters, and eCDi remote control.

A Little Tape Here...

For its workflow, WMAK decided to implement a tapeless system, based around a Pinnacle MediaStream 8000 (capable of both SD and HD video) and a tape-based system, based on Panasonic DVCPRO studio VTRs. For the most part, any material that comes in on a tape, such as syndicated programming, is put on the DVCPROs in a digital format and archived. Any material coming in off the satellite feeds goes directly into the Pinnacle server.

WMAK also uses the server primarily for SD material and the VTR for HD material. All incoming analog signals are converted to digital using a Harris Flexicoder MPEG-2 encoding system. WMAK has two signals on its channel, channel 7-1 and channel 7-2. 7-1 is the high definition feed (1080i) and 7-2 is the SD feed with a 4:3 aspect ratio that WMAK primarily uses to distribute to cable headends.

Although it has no news operations, WMAK does shoot local commercials and promos in SD and HD using Panasonic DVCPRO-based Varicams. The master control switching is performed on Evertz Mini master control SD and HD switchers. On the editing side, WMAK edits material on Apple G5s using Final Cut Pro HD.

It may seem like quite a feat to build a digital station from scratch. Cosby disagrees. “We did not have the problem of trying to integrate and use existing equipment,” he said. “Basically, everything in an existing television station has to be replaced to go digital--including the wiring and infrastructure.”

Truth be told, WMAK is not completely digital. After all, it’s still a little ahead of the game than most broadcasters and content providers. “We do have some analog equipment, primarily Beta SP VTRs, because the world still sends us Beta. But we convert that to digital,” said Cosby.

WMAK is an independent station. “We have the typical fare of what you’d see on a Fox, WB, or UPN station,” said Cosby. “The only difference is that at 8pm we do a movie, whereas those guys have two hours of network feed. We acquire programming just like everyone else and we pick programming that we think works in the east Tennessee area.” As a digital-only station, WMAK is entitled to cable must-carry. Cosby estimates 90% of the viewers in the Knoxville DMA receive their television signals from cable or satellite. “So they are going receive us through cable,” he said. (DISH satellite TV viewers will start receiving WMAK next year, through a special deal worked out between the station and the DBS provider. Cosby said he is also trying to work out a carriage deal with DirecTV.)

There’s one thing WMAK has that no other station in the Knoxville area can boast of, however. A pesky analog channel.