Four small stations go digital without breaking the bank
Like hundreds of other small- and mid-market television stations, those owned or operated by Saga Communications faced the May 1 deadline for digital transmission with some anxiety about the heavy financial toll on the company.
But when the FCC changed its DTV transition rules last November -- giving broadcasters the option to initially operate at low power and serve only their community of license, rather than the entire current grade -B NTSC analog service area -- smaller stations let out a collective sigh of relief.
"It was a godsend," said Greg Urbiel, director of engineering for Grosse Pointe, Mich.-based Saga. "When the FCC came out with the low-power option, we were able to meet the [May 1] deadline without the risk of losing our construction permit or breaking the bank."
And, Saga avoided the risk of losing interference protection to its allotted service area.
A VICTORIOUS SAGA
In addition to more than 60 radio stations, Saga owns three smaller-market full-power TV stations: ABC affiliate KAVU (in Victoria, Texas, Market 204) and CBS affiliates KOAM in Pittsburg, Kan. (near Joplin, Mo., Market 142) and WXVT (in Greenville, Miss., Market 182). Saga operates another Victoria station, Fox affiliate KVCT, in a local management agreement.
The group also owns three low-power TV stations in Victoria, which aren't required to convert to DTV at this time. All five Victoria stations share a common master control room.
Saga originally applied for and received full-power DTV permits, Urbiel said. But after studying the new FCC requirements, "We found we were able to scale back considerably."
Just for starters, a transmitter operating at 50 W offers savings in both upfront purchasing costs and subsequent power bills.
Originally, all four of the Saga stations received UHF DTV assignments. But when they still faced a full-power implementation, Saga requested and received a change to VHF frequencies for KVCT-DT (Channel 11) and KOAM-DT (Channel 13).
"When we factored in the power costs, we realized we couldn't light up two of our stations with UHF with no income coming in," Urbiel explained.
Finding low-power UHF transmitters for KAVU-DT (Channel 15) and WXVT-DT (Channel 17) was no problem, but finding a low enough power in VHF transmitters for KVCT-DT and KOAM-DT was a challenge.
"No one was prepared for what the FCC ended up doing, so it was hard to find low-power VHF transmitters," Urbiel said. "But Axcera was able to offer a solution."
For the UHF transmitters, Saga used the off-the-shelf Axcera DT820A. For the VHF, Axcera developed the DT418A. "They accommodated our needs," Urbiel said.
Even though Axcera received FCC acceptance fairly quickly for the new transmitter, there was still a slight delay in guaranteed delivery. But the company asked for and received an extension from the FCC so there was no problem, Urbiel said.
The two UHF stations were on-air by the end of April and the VHFs were up by the end of May, with Axcera coming in to do the proof of performance.
Fortunately, in each of the three locations, the stations were centrally located in their respective cities of license and had existing STL towers next to the studios. This allowed each station to install similar equipment, saving costs on the group purchases.
Also, Urbiel noted, there were no terrain issues since the landscape is fairly flat. The stations were able to easily provide citywide coverage.
After a structural evaluation of the STL towers, "We found we had to install new towers, but that would have had to happen anyway, and the improvements were no big deal," Urbiel said.
In Victoria, for example, Chief Engineer Jeff Pearce said that the old STL tower had an inadequate windloading to accommodate the new digital antennas, so new and stronger ERI towers were installed.
"There were no zoning issues," Pearce said. "We were just replacing an old tower with a new one, and the new one wasn't going to be used for cell sites."
The DTV transmitting antennas, manufactured by Antenna Concepts Inc., were mounted on the STL tower along with the relocated STL dishes. "The antennas are relatively inexpensive and lightweight, and are doing a good job," Pearce said.
Again using Victoria as an example, KVCT-DT installed a VHF E-Slot Model ACS4EDTV on Channel 11, and KAVU-DT put a UHF E-Slot Model ACS4EDTV on Channel 15.
"Both are sidemounted at 145 feet on a 160-foot-tall self-supporting ERI tower," Pearce said.
To keep things simple, Saga decided to convert each master control NTSC output to standard-definition (480p) digital, rather than take digital feeds from the networks.
The company chose the Tandberg Television E5211 with the NTSC-input option as the SD encoder and the Tandberg Television TT6010 transport stream processor to develop the SMPTE 310 stream with static PSIP to feed the transmitter.
A DIGITAL HEART
The Tandberg gear was purchased through Heartland Video, which "set up each station's PSIP before shipping so that Saga was ready to run with it out of the box," said Heartland Account Manager Mark Bartolotta.
In Victoria, the new transmitters and rack for the Tandberg and support gear were installed in the rear of the production area, near the air conditioning and close to the STL tower.
Now that the Saga stations have a DTV presence, "We are anxious to see what happens," Urbiel said. "Hopefully, it will catch on."
One of the reasons the FCC gave for changing its DTV rules was to have as many stations as possible delivering some DTV service in order to entice consumers to buy DTV receivers and hasten the transition.
"It gives us some breathing space and a chance to do this incrementally," Urbiel said. "In these markets, it's hard to justify the expenditures. There is just not that kind of revenue."
It also gives the group time to budget more money for further expansion, such as pass-through of the networks' digital feeds, adding an electronic program guide and eventually moving to full-power DTV.
Victoria will be the first to reap the benefits. Planning is already underway to build a 1,000-foot tower for both analog and digital full-power broadcasting at a new central location. It is expected to be completed within a year or two and will replace two separate and physically distant facilities with smaller towers.
"This will make radical improvements in reception in all the counties [around Victoria] that we serve," Pearce said.
The 50 W DTV transmitters may be used as backup when they are eventually superseded, but by then the technology will be better, Urbiel predicted. "By the time we go high power, we'll go through another generation of transmitters and probably get them at a better price."
In the meantime, Urbiel said that Saga will keep an eye on its markets to see what its viewers want from their DTV.
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