Small Markets With Big Digital Plans

As logic would have it, small market television stations generally have less capital and smaller budgets earmarked for the digital transition than their medium and large market counterparts. Knowing this, one might assume that small market stations are applying in droves for extensions on their digital deadlines. But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, many small market stations are holding their own when it comes to the digital race.

For example, The Nexstar Broadcasting Group, headquartered in Clarks Summit, PA, has agreed to purchase 14 low power UHF DTV transmitters and two low power VHF DTV transmitters from Ai for its initial digital build-out. Some of Nexstar's stations are in the smaller markets. The agreement calls for Ai to supply the Nexstar Group's digital and analog transmitter needs, using Rohde & Schwarz (available in the U.S. exclusively through Ai) solid state transmitters and Ai Quantum transmitters. This agreement also includes 14 future Quantum upgrades to full power. What the smaller market stations are finding is that low power has some unique advantages. For example, turning on a low power DTV transmitter means the power bill doesn't skyrocket in the early days of the transition. And with that in mind, some stations are finding they can afford to consistently run more hours of DTV than their big market cousins.

WHKY-TV, in Hickory, NC, is running an EMCEE 200 W upgradeable transmitter, and an Andrew ALP series antenna fed by an Andrew Heliax transmission line. According to General Manager Jeff Long, the independent station has been getting "beautiful signal reports as far away as 30 miles." Even when WHKY's next upgrade comes, the power bill won't be a shocker, since plans now call for a jump to just 600 W.

Leading The Way

Apparently, the NAB has referred to WKPT-DT, the ABC affiliate for East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, as its "poster station" for the digital transition. President and General Manager George DeVault says that's probably because it signed on its DTV signal on October 15, 2000, and did it with an investment of $123,861.

DeVault's equipment lineup includes an Axcera 500 W transmitter, a Barco Polaris encoder/multiplexer equipped for two SDTV video streams each with Dolby stereo, two SAP channels, and PSIP. The station's Scala SL-8 antenna, sitting at 2,276 feet above average terrain, is fed by an Andrew 1 5/8-inch transmission line, yielding an ERP of 5,380 W.

What also drew attention to the station was DeVault's decision to ramp up to the actual turn-on time in just two months, which is another advantage of starting off with low power. However, DeVault admits he bribed workers to keep them working extra hours by barbecuing ribs and cooking steaks. Down the line, WKPT-DT will surge to 200,000 kW ERP.

The Really Small Markets

Duluth, MN is in the 132nd market, and its allocation to replicate its VHF NTSC signal is 1 MW. Since WDIO-TV didn't think it could justify full power right out of the chute, it opted for a 2.5 kW Larcan Magnum transmitter. It also wanted to minimize throwaway parts of its system, so it installed mask filters that could later handle full power.

WDIO also operates a satellite station 120 miles away in Hibbing, which has a 500 kW allocation. The Hibbing station also sports a Larcan 2.5 kW Magnum transmitter. Plans call for the WDIO Magnum to be installed as a backup in Hibbing when the Duluth station moves to higher power.

Further down the small market line, KULR-DT, which occupies the 169th market in Billings, MT, has turned on its Harris Platinum transmitter at 2.5 kW. KULR-DT Chief Engineer Mark Huller side-mounted a Scala panel antenna on its existing tower and is feeding it with an Andrew Heliax transmission line.

Among the many other small market stations now turning on DTV transmitters is WJPR-TV in Lynchburg, VA. It's using a solid state Thales Broadcast & Multimedia 2.5 kW rig. In Mansfield, OH, WFMD-TV has upgraded to a Rohde & Schwarz VHF digital rig, bringing the power level to 3.5 kW. President and General Manager Gunther Meisse, commenting on DTV, said that he "likes to stay on the front edge of technology." Apparently so, as WFMD-DT was the nation's first independent, non-affiliate station to sign on a DTV signal. Mansfield is 75 miles from Cleveland. Today, all transmitter manufacturers are offering low power transmitters that can be scaled up later to full power. Apparently, the small market stations are buying brands across the board.

As the DTV numbers climb in the small markets, stations engineers report that they're already looking down the line at running higher powers, and they've all selected upgradeable transmission systems. But, they insist that the unreported advantage of starting with low power is that they can quickly spot potential coverage problems.

Trouble In River City

Despite the increased DTV activity in the smaller markets, there's yet another hurdle: translators. Most translators in the field today aren't capable of retransmitting DTV signals. And that's a problem for these stations, because most of the translators in service today aren't owned by the television stations. That puts the investment burden outside the stations, but begs the question of whether or not private translator operators will opt for updating their translator fleets. KULR-TV's reach is extended by 54 translators, and Huller is concerned about how translator operators will react to DTV.

With that thought in mind, small market stations can see the finish line, and they insist they won't be left behind. As for the translators, the feeling evokes that famous line from Field of Dreams:
"Build it and they will come!"

Editor's Note: "Ai: Taking The Pain Out Of The Transition," (May 2002) was written by Mark Polovick, Ai's national sales manager, not Mark Aitken.

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