NEWS AND VIEWS January 30, 2009
Mike and Laurel Kohl
S-9141 State Road 23
Plain, Wisconsin 53577-9612
January 30, 2009
We have a New Year. We have a new president. It's a whole new world out there, with lots to talk about.
I have been putting the finishing touches on a new section of the website that was unveiled last week, providing some badly needed detailed information on off-the-air local TV reception across the United States. Over a month of scrounging websites including the FCC and others, and cross referencing information has resulted in 50 separate charts that show all Full Powered TV Stations in the United States. This project includes exact transmitter coordinates, which you can check out with a GPS, or even play with Google Earth; I had a blast zooming in on the Empire State Building in New York, and moving up and down Manhattan, trying to identify different buildings. Once you find a huge tower like this, Google often shows an aerial view that gives things a very unusual perspective. Back to the charts...we also have an FCC estimated coverage distance in miles, and a listing of all known digital subchannels, as well as indicators of any channels transmitting in high definition format.
Why all of the research? Perhaps I can sell a few TV antennas as well as create a national database to sell hybrid satellite/off air digital receivers. There was no easily accessable information in one place, so I put together charts that gave me all of this pertinent information on the same line across the page. The digital transition is going to be confusing enough without having a lack of information, and I thought it was a necessary expenditure of time to get myself up to speed with where local broadcasting facilities would be come the spring of 2009. And this allows me to share this information with the rest of you, so we can all get maximum advantage from digital facilities that are much expanded from previous analog transmissions.
While putting together the charts, and simultaneously listening to what was going on in Washington, D.C., concerning the digital transition, many thoughts crossed my mind, and I found the time to re-write the paper that I put together on the realities of digital television. All of this can be accessed starting at our Local TV link at www.global-cm.net/OFFAIRLOCALTELEVISION.html
The U.S. Congress is trying to put on a good show to avoid being blamed for the sheer incompetence at the federal level for implementation of digital television, and the subsequent turn-off of analog full-powered signals. As of this writing, it looked like the U.S. Senate might actually succeed in getting a bill through that would set back the date of the required turn-off of analog signals by four months; from February 17 to June 12. This is probably not a good thing in the grand scheme, but can be expected when politics gets involved to put a band aid on the problems that have been festering for over a year. Nobody was actually in charge of the digital transition, at least nobody that can be held accountable for its many failings. Congress set it up, and authorized an entity called the NTIA to issue coupons providing $40.00 off the price of digital converters. The program made the mistake of allowing EVERYONE to apply for a coupon, but had limited funding that only covered a fraction of the population. It also had a 90 day redemption limit on coupons, so many were not able to be cashed in, leaving a pile of money in the fund that could not be touched; in sort of a state of limbo while the fund itself was actually out of money to fund more coupons. Simple solutions were not thought about until it was too late, such as funding the problem for the shortfall, and allowing those with expired coupons to get replacements. Now we are less than 3 weeks away from February 17th as I write, and even in the best of times you would be very lucky to see a coupon delivered in 3 to 4 weeks. And there are now over 3 million people on an unfunded waiting list. People are procrastinators, and nobody with any authority woke up to the fact that the NTIA funding was out of money until December...even though public service announcements have been on every TV station for over a year. Nothing could be done until the new administration was sworn in on January 20th, and this matter has to now compete with the life threatening financial problems facing the world. TV stations have been preparing, and legally on notice that they must turn off their analog transmitters no later than February 17th. Very few of them were not ready to throw the switch on that date, and a number of stations are now facing the problems that will undoubtedly result from the lack of a synchronized effort of analog station shutdown. Some cannot take their permanent digital channels until one or more other nearby stations turn off THEIR analog signals. It's a domino situation, and it would be confusing even with the original plan. With the world crying about money problems, pity any TV station owner that must simulcast analog AND digital signals for another four months. That's tens of thousands of dollars per month for electricity, and the discovery has also been made that many stations have been putting off maintenance on their existing analog transmitters with the intention of scrapping them completely once digital is on the air permanently by itself. What will probably happen is that stations will be able to voluntarily turn off their analog transmitters when ready, if they want to do so before June. Digital is coming hell or high water, and many stations have firm plans in place for a mid-February transition. Losing a few viewers that may not have their act together for digital reception may be overridden by simple economics. My opinion is to let things keep going as they were, giving stations the opportunity to keep analog running until June if they wish, but with the ability to set their own dates if local situations warrant it. Losing analog TV will wake up the remaining stragglers that the transition is actually happening, and it will not be the end of the world if they have to read a book or find alternatives for a few days or weeks until their subsidized coupon arrives. Converters are on the market awaiting a home; coupon or otherwise.
Within the local off-air section linked above are discussions of many technical issues on digital reception. Expected digital coverage area forecast by the FCC is one of those areas. Maps such as the one below can be found at www.fcc.gov after going into the Media Bureau section and calling up your local station's call letters. These are actually the outer limits of where the FCC expects there to be no interference from other stations. The reality is that these are very conservative maps, and when there are flat areas such as the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, coupled with elevated receive antenna locations, and a large efficient antenna system, actual range is much further away from the transmitter. Below is a map for KXJB-TV from Fargo, North Dakota, transmitting from a 2060-foot tower east of Galesburg, North Dakota on Channel 38.
This map will show a coverage range of about 67 miles. I have been between 85 and 90 miles from the transmitter, at a rural local north of Thief River Falls, and received signal quality readings in the 80s on a scale of 100. This is with a simple UHF 4-bay bow tie antenna less than 20 feet off the ground. Similar strong signals await those in places such as Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which is over 90 miles away.
All of that said, digital reception is quite different from
analog. Rather than varying grades of snowy picture, once you get
down to a certain level of signal, it simply mutes out. When it
works, everything is perfect, and you don't have problems such as
ghosting, which was common with analog reception. It actually takes
less signal to drive a digital converter or TV set than analog, but you
are more susceptible to outages caused by changes in propagation when near
the outer limits of station coverage. Two stations transmitting from
the same tower can sometimes require slight rotation of the TV antenna in
a different place for optimum signal on each. This is common in
hilly terrain, where you might not have a direct path of signal, and the
solution is often to use a TV antenna rotor to make the minor changes
needed to keep acceptable reception. Here in Wisconsin, I notice a
huge difference between summer and winter (leaves vs. no leaves on the
trees), and even some fluctuations based upon the depth of the snow.
All of these affect my signal path, which may do a bit of bouncing by the
time it gets to me, and this can be problematic with digital
reception. It varies.
RTN vs. Equity
Broadcasting. A really complicated legal and financial situation has
erupted in Little Rock. Equity has declared bankruptcy, and is
awaiting their day in court to reorganize operations. A former
director, Henry Luken, bought the Retro TV Network from Equity last
summer, with an option for Equity to buy it back within 6 months. In
the interim, he acted to guarantee any shortfalls in operating budget for
RTN. After less than three months, Mr. Luken realized that a few
bills were not being paid by Equity, and he quit making payments on behalf
of their joint operation. Bankruptcy proceedings from Equity were
jump started by the calling in of a loan from a financial institution in
Connecticut, claiming that over $40 million was owed. Millions are
outstanding to some programming suppliers such as Univision, one of the
networks that Equity uses to serve its affiliates in Spanish speaking
markets around the country. All of this got ugly between Christmas
and New Year's Day, and the end result was that RTN's signal was pulled
from all Equity stations previously set up as RTN affiliates. Mr
Luken set up a temporary Ku-band uplink in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and
spent over a week making things right with over 50 affiliates around the
country. Equity has been making deals of its own since losing RTN
network programming, including one with THIS TV, from Weigel Broadcasting
in Chicago. RTN affiliates in Buffalo, New York, and Fort Smith,
Arkansas, are now carrying that ad-supported classic movie channel.
Any change in the previous February 17th date to turn off analog signals
could prove to be a blessing for Equity Broadcasting, which had over 15 of
its stations in a situation where digital facilities had not yet been
built, and their analog signals would have been turned off on February
17th. If they can remain on the air after that date, it could buy
valuable time to reorganize finances after their bankruptcy
proceedings. Local cable TV coverage in those markets probably will
still need the satellite feeds, so it is doubtful that everything will
leave the Galaxy 18 Ku-band satellite. It all depends upon legal and
financial issues. Nobody wants to completely lose an investment in a
TV operation if there is some hope that money can be extracted later, and
those FCC licenses are valuable on their own if they can be retained to
sell a station to raise money. The whole situation is a soap opera
right now, and nobody's talking. We'll see what is on the air at
this time next month!
And please buy something!! I know you are out there, and we could use the business. If you have learned anything from our educational efforts, please consider this when considering your next off-air antenna or satellite hardware purchase.
Until next month,