When it comes to the DTV transition, no one has been living with the process longer than station GMs, and engineering personnel; both at local stations and station groups. As they caught their collective breath afterwards, TV Technology asked them how the transition went, and what happens next now that analog television is a thing of the past.
THE BIG DAY
For TV engineers across the country, June 12, 2009 was "The Day." It was the event they had long planned for; not just in building new DTV transmission plants, but in preparing to respond to confused viewers when analog TV went dark.
Berry Pinney, director of engineering for WEWS-TV in Cleveland, used digital technology to shut down the station's analog transmitter on June 12. To deal with these callers, many stations and groups put phone banks in place. This ensured that lots of qualified engineers were on hand to tell viewers how to switch their TVs from analog to digital reception. And make no mistake, these people called!
"We got about 420 calls on Friday, and only 30 calls on Saturday related to the DTV transition," said Berry Pinney, director of engineering for WEWS-TV in Cleveland. "Based on the calls we tool, 50 percent of the people were having trouble getting their equipment to work and the other 50 percent couldn't get all the stations they'd got before. Only a very few called in, not knowing anything about the transition."
"We got lots of calls from people needing to understand how to repoint their rabbit ears, and then to re-scan to find their digital channels," said Jeff Laird, KHOU's assistant director of technology. "They didn't know that the antenna elements have to be horizontal to pick up the signals, and be fully extended." To forestall calls, KHOU posted a video tutorial on the subject on its Web site, www.khou.com.
Craig Harper, vice president of technology for Belo in Dallas, worked the phone banks in his hometown. "Of the calls we received, I'd say 98 percent were from people who had purchased set-top boxes and had to retune their antennas to receive us. I would also say that we had a 98 percent success rate in helping them out over the phone. There were a few who hadn't received us well on rabbit ears in analog, and now couldn't get us in digital. For those people, I recommended amplified and elevated antennas... We had some people up to 100 miles away who used to see us poorly in analog, who now can see us perfectly in digital. It's all a matter of the landscape between them and our tower."
Craig Harper, vice president of technology, Belo Ironically, despite the fuss and worry generated by the news media, the Big Day itself was anticlimactic, according to Ardell Hill, senior vice president of operations at Media General in Richmond, Va. "After all the planning and promotion, we received relatively few calls compared to what could have happened if we'd just flipped the switch without telling anyone," he said. "Those who did call, we were able to help." His sentiment was echoed by Belo's Harper: "It went really well at our 20 stations, bearing in mind that switching from analog to digital during the broadcast day is like doing an oil change while doing 70 mph on the freeway."
Once the transition was done and the calls subsided, TV engineers started pondering what to do next. (Actually, many of them have been debating this for months.) According to the engineers we spoke to, "housecleaning" has been selected as the first order of business.
"We get to clean up our plant after taking analog off air," said Fred Lass, WRGB's director of engineering in Albany, N.Y. "We've been lucky to keep our 1974 Harris tube analog transmitter alive using bandaids and toothpicks. Now, it will be scrapped." In contrast, the analog transmitter at WRGB sister station WCWN, a Thales IOX, has been upgraded with digital IOT tubes. "It will remain in place until it is needed by someone else as a digital transmitter, and/or the building space is rented," Lass said.
Over at WEWS, "We're going to recycle it all," said Pinney; "the analog transmitter, the two antennas that weigh 21,000 pounds apiece, and everything else."
At KHOU-TV in Houston, their analog transmitter has already "left the building." Today, "We've got a big empty space in our transmitter building, now that the analog transmitter is gone," Laird said. "You could roller skate in there; there's so much room freed up. Meanwhile, the temperature has dropped considerably. Before, when both transmitters were on, the average room temperature was 83 degrees with the air conditioning on. Recently, I got a remote alarm from the site telling me that the room temperature had dropped below 60 degrees!"
One thing is certain: Ceasing analog/digital simulcasts will save these broadcasters money. "Our 32-year-old RCA transmitter was consuming about $6,000 worth of power a month," said WEWS' Pinney. "With it gone, and the other related items factored in, I expect that we'll be saving $10,000 a month by not simulcasting in analog." Harper concurs. "Turning off a big UHF analog transmitter in one market will cut our power bill by $40,000 a month," he said.
This painting of the WRGB transmitter (from 1939) was featured in the 1940 calendars General Electric (which developed the transmitter site) gave to selected clients. The analog transmitter was shut down on June 12, 70 years later.LOOKING AHEAD
Besides scrapping their old analog transmitters—or selling them to international dealers for re-use in other countries—and cleaning up their transmitter rooms, most of the engineers we spoke to have no special plans for the future. "It's just as it always is," said Hill. "We'll devote ourselves to maintenance and upgrades as selected by management, using the staff we have."
"Our biggest concern is preparing for the hurricane season now," said KHOU's Laird. "Otherwise, it's just business as usual."
Fred Lass, however, expects to keep doing transition-related work for the immediate future. "WRGB is switching from channel 39 to channel 6," he said. "The channel 39 transmitter is a Harris Power CD. It will be retuned to channel 43 for WCWN. The MSDC tube in the Power CD will provide higher efficiency than the current IOT transmitter. WCWN will also need more power in order to move to the existing broadband omnidirectional antenna. WCWN will also be installing a second Power CD from a sister station that is also switching back to VHF."
WRGB/WCWN notwithstanding, the digital transition is over for U.S. full-power TV stations; at least on the transmission side. "Our next goal is to get all of our newscasts into HD, both in studio and out," said Belo's Harper. "But as for transmitters and towers? The work is done!"
James Careless is an award-winning journalist who has written for TV Technology since the 1990s. He has covered HDTV from the days of the six competing HDTV formats that led to the 1993 Grand Alliance, and onwards through ATSC 3.0 and OTT. He also writes for Radio World, along with other publications in aerospace, defense, public safety, streaming media, plus the amusement park industry for something different.
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