More stations go digital, but how many... really?

A Sioux Falls, SD, TV station is listed on the NAB DTV station list. However, the station is not on-the-air in digital, yet.

An HD antenna sits on the ground outside KSFY-TV. The station hopes to be on-the-air in early spring.

From time to time, the NAB distributes an updated list of stations it says are on-the-air in digital in the U.S., providing a number that is used by journalists and others to plot the status of the digital transition. But the list may not always be accurate.

Last week the NAB said that 33 new stations were on-the-air with a digital signal, bringing the current nationwide total to 733. However, of the DTV stations to appear on the new NAB list, KSFY-TV Sioux Falls, SD (in DMA #112), is not yet on-the-air in digital, according to people who work there.

This calls into question how the list is compiled and its accuracy. The cable industry, specifically the NCTA, has challenged the NAB’s transition numbers on many occasions, accusing NAB President Eddie Fritts of Enron-like number games.

KSFY-TV Chief Engineer Eugene Schultz is as puzzled as anyone. “I don’t know where they get their information from, you tell me,” he said. “The only thing I can say is, according to the FCC, we were supposed to be on the first of November, and maybe the NAB assumed we would do it.” Schultz said the station received an extension to complete transmission tower work and hoped to be on-the-air by late spring.

A call to the NAB confirmed the discrepancy and a spokeswoman there said the list would be “fixed.” She said the NAB often relies on the stations themselves to report when they begin digital operation but was not sure how KSFY-TV got listed.

Whatever the exact number, however, the total still falls short of the roughly 1,288 commercial stations that the government had hoped would be broadcasting in digital by now. Public broadcasters (which the NAB includes in its DTV station list updates) have until May 1, 2003, to begin digital operation and at last count about 90 of those 350 stations were on-the-air, according to PBS. Their digital programs, many in widescreen HDTV, are available to 58.93 percent of American TV households. (For more about PBS stations read DTV for the public).

For the record, KSFY-TV’s parent company, Raycom Media, has had two other stations that have been on-the-air in digital since May 1, 2002 (neither appear on the NAB’s list). For all of its stations, including KPRY-TV Piere and KABY-TV Aberdeen, Raycom is using Thales digital transmitters at reduced power (61 kW for KPRY-DT and 54 kW for KABY-DT).

Schultz said that there are not a lot of consumers with digital receivers in South Dakota, but he’s committed to making sure there’s something on in digital to watch for those that want it. He tells a story to illustrate his close relationship with his digital viewers.

In an effort to minimize its power bills, Raycom has requested that the digital transmitters be shut off at night, after 11 p.m., and be turned back on at 8 p.m. One day a viewer in Aberdeen called him at 11 a.m., complaining that there wasn’t anything on to watch. Schultz quickly obliged him by turning on the power. That’s customer service at its best, and may be what stations might have to resort to if they want to compete with cable and satellite’s digital services.

For Raycom, the transition to DTV was stimulated solely due to the FCC mandate. “I don’t think consumers know what DTV is yet,” Schultz said, explaining that cable and satellite TV have confused potential digital TV buyers. He said no one knows what the word “digital” means anymore.

A Thales transmitter in use at KPRY-TV.

“Right now, the cost of the new digital sets is too high for most people and there’s no real reason to get rid of the old [analog] set. I think when people see the beautiful pictures they’ll love it, but not many have seen a good digital picture. Not if they are watching it on cable.”

He said that the company’s analog stations have been promoting the new digital channels on-the-air, but it has not made a big difference in TV set sales in the region.

Among the other stations on the new list, three are public stations. They are: KISU-TV, Pocatello, Idaho, (DMA #165), WLRN-TV, Miami, Fla. (DMA #17) and KCDT-TV, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (DMA #79).

The new on-the-air DTV commercial stations include: KSCC-TV and KSNW-TV, Wichita, Kan. (DMA #66); WHMB-TV, Indianapolis, Ind. and WCLJ-TV, Indianapolis, Ind. (DMA #25); KUSA-TV, Denver, Colo. (DMA #18); WNUV-TV, Baltimore, Md. (DMA #24); WDTN-TV and WKOI-TV, Dayton, Ohio (DMA #58); WDKY-TV, Lexington, Ky. (DMA #65); KFRE-TV and KMPH-TV, Fresno, Calif. (DMA #57); KPTH-TV, Sioux City, Iowa (DMA #140); WTTA-TV and WMOR-TV, Tampa, Fla. (DMA #13); WCIU-TV, Chicago, Ill. (DMA #3); WHME-TV, South Bend, Ind. (DMA #87); WTTO-TV and WABM-TV, Birmingham, Ala. (DMA #40); WBUI-TV, Decatur, Ill. (DMA #82); and KCRG-TV, Cedar Rapids, Iowa (DMA #88).

The NAB said DTV signals are now being transmitted in 179 markets that include 96.69 percent of U.S. TV households. In addition, 70.37 percent of the more than 106 million U.S. TV households are in markets with five or more broadcasters airing DTV and 36.55 percent are in markets with eight or more broadcasters sending digital signals.

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