HDTV Clear Picture At A Price
But that’s what they had to do to comply with a federal mandate that all TV stations must broadcast in High Definition Television (HDTV) by May 1.
Local stations were given a deadline of May 1, 2002, and public television stations were given a deadline of May 1, 2003, but the timing didn’t lessen expenses for anyone.
Michael Walenta, general manager of public station WGVU, said the full conversion cost his station $6.2 million, not including operational expenses. He added that PBS spent $1.7 billion for the transition to take place.
“We have seen this coming for awhile, so now every piece of equipment we need to replace, we replace with something that is good for HDTV,” Walenta said.
Other stations, like WOOD TV8, not only started planning early but began broadcasting early as well. The station has been showing the Tonight Show and major sporting events in HDTV since 1999. WOOD executives dealt with a beginning budget of $2 million, not including infrastructure costs.
“Luckily, we were a little bit ahead and so we could just add on to our tower,” said Mike Laemers, director of engineering for WOOD TV8, WOTV and WXSP. “However, we had our initial budget and then had to tack on another $10 million before that to prepare the studio and everything in the digital plant. We are now bringing up our HD cable, which is 700 feet, to the top of the tower, which is 900 feet. That is going to run us $400,000.”
The move to HDTV stems from a July 1997 directive from the Federal Communications Commission. That notice indicated that the analog signal, which television stations have broadcast on for half a century, was now needed for public safety purposes to “allow more efficient use of the spectrum.” Basically, the FCC wanted the analog space used by channels 60-69 set aside for emergency communication use, so that personnel could communicate without electronic interference from anywhere in the country.
With all television stations moving to HDTV, however, the FCC also may have the opportunity to “auction off” some of the unused analog signal to other communication partners, thereby generating millions of dollars in revenue.
“When mandating that we all needed to move to HDTV, the government didn’t really think it through. They knew it would mean a large revenue stream for them and that is all that seemed to matter,” said Ed Fernandez, general manager of WXMI FOX17. “This is the first technology advancement that has been mandated by the government, but it wasn’t followed through. They really need to look at all of the televisions that (the mandate) is making obsolete. And the real question is, how are we going to be able to get this money that we have spent back?”
That question doesn’t seem to have a readily available answer.
“I am not sure when we could recoup this money,” said Janet Mason, general manager of WZZM 13. “It could be years.
“The first thing that needs to happen is that this really has to catch on and Nielsen has to start rating HD stations so we can develop a value. That way advertisers will understand the value and we can charge a premium.”
But it’s a little different story with public television, where some stations had the option of going out of business or complying with the mandate and funding it however possible.
WGVU is currently awaiting notification on a federal grant it hopes to receive to lighten the load.
“Public television stations have lobbied Congress repeatedly to try and get some more money. In the beginning they threw around $20 (million) to $30 million pots, but when spread out and trying to cover $1.7 billion, that is really just change,” said Walenta.
The grants are given on a need-and-challenge basis, and since WGVU is in a more urban area than some other stations, Walenta is hoping at least something comes through before next year’s deadline.
The problem with these deadlines, said WOOD TV8’s Laemers, is that all of the other required players aren’t quite up to speed yet — namely, the cable companies. He noted that Charter Communications in Kalamazoo has high definition capability and WOOD TV will be partnering with Charter to bring that service to Grand Rapids and the Kalamazoo area.
Other big players in the cable market have yet to offer HDTV service, causing Grand Rapids residents to, ironically enough, go back to receiving the signal with an outside antenna.
And with an assumed analog shutoff time of May 2006, local broadcast stations are hoping each player gets up to speed on this new progression of technology.
“This really is just the natural progression of technology,” said Laemers. “The same thing that happened to color televisions, VCRs and DVDs, is now happening with HDTV. And as soon as the networks are able to provide more programming in high definition, I think it will really take off.”