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Will LPTV Be Left Out in the Cold?

DTV transition could threaten future status of stations

FALLS CHURCH, VA: Although low-power TV stations have been around for more than two decades and outnumber their full-power brethren, channel selection and limits on interference could spell the demise of a number of these stations when the transition is scheduled to end in 2009.

LPTVs have been around since 1982 and now number in excess of 2,700. By comparison, there are approximately 1,750 VHF and UHF licensed full-power stations.

Contrary to the beliefs of some that LPTV stations are "mom and pop" operations existing to serve niche markets, many are affiliated with the major networks and offer their viewers the same mainstream programming being carried by their full-power equivalents. LPTVs with ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX affiliations exist within some Nielsen-rated markets.

The designation "low-power" television is somewhat of a misnomer, as ERPs can run up to 150 kW in the UHF spectrum. Further, there are no restrictions on antenna height, provided that the tower structure is FCC registered and the station does not produce interference in the coverage area of a full-power broadcaster or to other licensed LPTVs or TV translators.

Also, there is no limit on the number of LPTV stations that one individual or group can own.

There are no channels set aside for LPTV use. Since the dawn of low-power, the prospective licensee has been required to locate an operating frequency on a non-interfering basis. The FCC makes the final determination and issues a license accordingly.

'SECONDARY' STATUS

The status of LPTV operations is deemed "secondary" by the FCC. This means that the station may cause no interference to a licensed full-power spectrum user and has to endure any interference caused by such "primary" operations. This can be the undoing of an LPTV operation, as the full-power broadcaster can bump the LPTV if interference or reduction of coverage is proven.

As a result of this secondary status, there may be no room at the inn once former analog full-powers settle into their permanent digital channel berths and the FCC auctions off the remaining spectrum. One early FCC estimate indicated that 35 to 45 percent of the present low-power television stations would either have to find new frequencies or go dark to protect full-power stations in the DTV transition.

For this reason, there are no guarantees that all LPTVs can continue to operate after the 2009 hard shut-off.

Some LPTVs are not secondary. In 1999, Congress enacted the Community Broadcasters Protection Act, creating a new subset of LPTV players. Qualifying stations are termed "Class A" and are afforded a special level of protection for their signal contours. Existing LPTVs could qualify if certain programming and performance requirements were met. Class A stations still have to respect existing full-power analog grade B service contours, as well as those of all full-power DTV allocations and service areas of existing translators and non Class A LPTV broadcasters.

Class A status is not always a safety net, as at least one LPTV broadcaster discovered.

Robert Suffel started a low-power operation in Sacramento, Calif. in 1994. When the opportunity to go Class A opened up, he applied for, and was granted this level of protected operation. However, there were no guarantees. Suffel's assigned channel was needed for full-power digital expansion and an alternate LPTV frequency could not be readily identified. He spent nearly two years and thousands of dollars in engineering and legal fees before giving up and watching his KBTV-CA go dark.

"The FCC could not approve a replacement channel and we went dark in the spring of 2000," he said. "At the time the FCC released their proposed DTV channel allocations, I noticed that if they had simply switched my assignment with one in San Jose they could have saved two LPTVs. However, the FCC said they didn't have the resources to make exceptions."

(After Suffel's station signed off, another Sacramento LPTV started up with the KBTV-CA call. Suffel said that this didn't happen until after the new operators put a lot of money into engineering work in order to make it possible.)

Making changes to accommodate the changing full-power landscape can get expensive too. Greg Herman, president of WatchTV Inc., a Portland, Ore.-based owner of 19 stations in Washington and Oregon, said that over the last several years, his group has spent millions to accommodate the digital channel assignments made to full-power broadcasters.

"About 70 percent have had to be re-channeled," he said. "We spent a great deal of time, effort and money in putting all our channels into the core. It's not for the faint of heart.

"And it's not just the hardware costs, but also the challenge of maintaining an identity and moving our viewers. People don't often reprogram their TV receivers after they first buy them. There are costs in trying to inform viewers about changes. The word 'hardship' is putting it mildly."

NO ANALOG SHUTOFF

Sometimes overlooked in the current round of hard cutoff dates and set-top box legislation, is that for now, LPTV stations are exempt from the 2009 mandate. Even though NTSC broadcasting may end at full-power stations, individuals without set-top decoder boxes won't have a permanently dark TV receiver if they are within range of a LPTV transmitter.

Currently, LPTVs cannot request a digital expansion channel. This could change, as the FCC is expected later this year to begin accepting applications from LPTVs that want to add digital. However, the onus will be upon the LPTV licensees to locate suitable channels for DTV.

Jason Roberts, president of the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA), said the commission has been "pretty generous" in authorizing LPTV operations. However, the situation could change with the channel shuffling and annexation going on.

"I think that some of these stations will be allowed to operate until interference problems surface, but there is a chance that some LPTVs will be squeezed out," he said.

Dr. Byron St. Clair, a Colorado-based LPTV engineering consultant and one of the driving forces in the creation of LPTV service, was encouraged about the eventual digital shakeout in the low-power industry, explaining that on the whole, digital transmission would benefit LPTV broadcasters.

"A digital signal is watt-for-watt worth more than analog," he said. "A DTV signal is about 12 dB more effective than current analog transmissions."

St. Clair added that present LPTV power levels will drop by a factor of 10 once digital broadcasting is initiated.

"Three hundred watts for VHF and 15 kW for UHF, these are the digital LPTV power levels," he said.

However, St. Clair is not overly optimistic about low-power operations rushing to make the digital switch.

"LPTV stations will have to put out a substantial amount of money before they can start operating digitally," he said. "Most LPTV players are going to be hard put to see any business sense in DTV broadcasting until there are more sets out there."

St. Clair said that at present, no more than "a handful" of LPTV stations are broadcasting digitally and those that are performed flash cuts on their own volition. Most would rather not flash cut, as they are fearful of losing audiences.

WatchTV has already laid the groundwork for DTV as part of its rechanneling efforts. All of the group's transmitters are now digital-capable. Herman expects that upwards of $30,000 will have to be spent at each station for the remaining equipment.

"We're trying to set aside funds for this," he said. "Because of the relocations, we're a bit ahead of the game. For stations who are not prepared, we estimate that it will cost somewhere between $85,000 to $175,000 to make the move to digital."

BRIGHT FUTURE

What is in store for LPTVs as the nation gets closer to digital-only broadcasting? Herman thinks that despite the costs and inconvenience, the future is indeed bright.

"Digital will be much better for LPTV than analog--if we can survive the trip," he said. "All we want is a level playing field. People will start to realize just how good over-the-air TV really is."

Roberts also remains upbeat about the future for LPTVs.

"I think right now it's an exciting opportunity for our industry. It gives the ability to add a second channel to ease the transition. The primary concern for us is, that as secondary status broadcasters, we have very limited cable must-carry rights. Without cable, the stability of the industry could be hurt."

When asked about converting LPTVs to digital, Roberts expressed the opinion that it would probably be no different than with full-power broadcasters.

"Some will go kicking and screaming, while others will go quietly."

In Sarasota, Fla., Burt Sherwood has brokered LPTV transactions for more than 20 years through his business, Burt Sherwood & Associates and The LPTV Store, and believes that the future is bright.

"It's going to be a wonderful future for anyone going into the next round of television with six MHz of spectrum as his own," he said.

"There's a lot of money out there for LPTV players. We're looking at multicasting, data transmission. There's so much you can do. This is the last of the free spectrum. Once the new DirecTV boxes (with terrestrial reception capability) are out, LPTV will give cable one hell of a hard time."

In spite of his optimism, Sherwood admits that some players could come up short when the digital transition does occur. Also, he acknowledges that a LPTV flash cut may not be the best thing to do right now.

"I have a totally digital station for sale--no nibbles in the last seven or eight months. Sometimes a station sells in a matter of days or weeks, maybe a little longer. Right now the average guy isn't going to spend this kind of money for digital station," Sherwood said. "He's thinking that the majority of his audience has analog TV sets."

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.