H is for Headache

When it comes to managing the transition to digital television, you might say the government is putting the cart before the horse.

Except it isn't even that good. The horse hasn't been bought yet, and the cart is still in the shop.

Here's the basic plot: By 2006, the government says everyone will be weaned off their old analog televisions and planted in front of their brand new digital sets.

It'd be a flawless plan if it weren't for the fact that a whole lot of people have refused to fall in line, throw out their old sets, and invest the thousands of dollars required to buy the new digital one.

And local broadcasters are left guessing what to buy and how to spend to make the transition to digital television.

Don't expect that horse and cart to be racing out of the barn anytime soon.

One of the biggest question marks for broadcasters is the "transitional period" during which stations are expected to transmit signals in both analog and digital.

That's an expensive proposition since it means stations will have to sink serious cash into a new antenna, transmitter, and encoder - even before there is an audience ready to receive the digital signal.

It's a classic catch-22: no one will buy a new digital receiver until they can see digital pictures with it, but there's no incentive for stations to put out a digital picture if no one's got a set yet.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the transitional period should last from 2003 (when the public broadcasters are expected to have converted to digital) to 2006, when the simulcasting should end, and most everyone should be able to receive a digital signal.

Then, the analog signal is turned off forever.

Fortunately, the federal government included an "out" clause: the mandatory conversion date won't hit until 85 percent of the public has the ability to receive a digital signal in their homes.

And at this point, nobody believes that this will be the case in 2006.

Another wrinkle is that over 60 percent of U. S. TV households have cable.

Since a true high definition picture needs much more data than an old analog picture, cable operators will have to find enough "space" on their systems to carry the new signal.

In Frankfort, the city-owned cable system has already begun planning a solution to all these problems.

According to John Higginbotham, director of community television, the Frankfort system has "set aside bandwidth earmarked to carry the digital signals of all our broadcast stations. Our system will have the capacity to pass the digital signal."

Higginbotham also said the Frankfort system - betting not everyone will have a digital TV when the analog signal is turned off - will enable its viewers to continue to receive a signal with their old sets.

"For example, as long as WLEX is up with two feeds, we're going to send both out to our customers," Higginbotham said. "Once their analog license has to be turned in, we'll downconvert the digital signal to analog, because we don't want our customers to be without those signals."

While Higginbotham hasn't priced out how much it will cost the Frankfort system to upgrade to carry these high definition pictures, local television stations are already dealing with their upgrade costs, which are considerable.

One Lexington station, Fox 56, is predicting it will have to invest a minimum of $3 million dollars to convert to digital.

The list of upgrades is lengthy, according to Mark Aitken, the director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group which owns Fox 56.

Just to "pass through" the signal of the network without doing any local production, Aitken said, a station will spend from $500,000 to $1.8 million.

And that's if they don't have to build a new transmission tower, which some stations must do because the existing tower can't accommodate a second antenna. A new tower can cost up to $3 million.

The final figure is only larger with the cost of new studio cameras (about $100,000 each), new mobile vans for live shots ($1.5 million each), new camcorders for news coverage ($125,000 each), and other necessities like editing bays, control panels, and high bandwidth cable to connect cameras to the control room.

What concerns Aitken most, however, is yet another problem that the industry has discovered: Getting a signal inside your home.

If a viewer lives 10 miles away from the station's antenna, currently a cheap set-top antenna (the beloved "rabbit ears") will receive a signal.

But when that station goes digital, rabbit ears may not cut it. That viewer 10 miles away may end up buying an outdoor directional antenna with a rotor. And that's on top of the cost for a new receiver and the decoder that goes with it.

At prices like these, people may just go back to reading.

Aitken explains, "The buildings reflect the signal, or hilly and mountainous areas reflect the signal, and the receiver has a tough time decoding it."

So: stations will be investing millions of dollars in new equipment, antennas, towers, mobile vans, and cameras, and the "new and improved" signal may not reach everyone who could receive the old signal.

You have to ask the question: why would the stations make the investment?

Beyond the governmental mandate, most stations are excited about the opportunities for enhanced services the new digital TV system will provide.

Aitken says his company is experimenting with those services: "Not only are we doing digital television, but we're doing interactive programming, in some cases we're offering Internet service over the air, and other really neat things."

These neat things are additional revenue streams for stations, which they will need in order to recoup the cost of conversion.

But neat or not, there are miles to go before this cart and horse ever gets to you.