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Stations prepare for HDTV



Published: Sun, February 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



TV stations are spending millions of dollars to bring HDTV to the area.

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- A new era of television is coming to the area.

High-definition television, or HDTV, should be available on local stations later this year. The stations have been spending millions of dollars to get ready to broadcast the digital signals that high-definition programs need.

If seen on HDTV sets, these programs provide crisp pictures and a more clear sound.

Some area residents already have spent thousands of dollars on TV sets capable of receiving HDTV. They are ready for what's being called the biggest revolution in television since the arrival of color.

For now, the only programming available are some premium movie channels for Time Warner cable customers. By May, however, local television stations are required to set up separate channels to broadcast digital signals.

Progress: Here's how the stations stand:

UWYTV, the local ABC affiliate, expects to make a federal deadline of broadcasting digital signals by May. A new transmitter has been ordered, and studies of its tower are being conducted to determine how it will hold a second transmission line.

It intends to buy digital equipment for its studio and production areas later. For now a converter will be used to translate analog signals into digital.

The final cost hasn't been determined but it will be millions of dollars, said Bob Romine, general manager.

UWFMJ, the local NBC affiliate, has received an extension to the May deadline because Canadian officials had concerns about its digital signal's interfering with signals from stations in Toronto, said John Grdic, general manager. The station expects to have its digital signal on the air by November at the latest.

Construction on a new transmitter building is to start next month, and a new antenna will be put up on its tower. WFMJ installed digital equipment in its studio and production areas a couple years ago.

The cost of going digital will be more than $1 million, Grdic said.

UWKBN's corporate owner has asked for an extension to the May deadline because it is working on a buying necessary equipment for all of its stations, said Roland Adeszko, general manager of the CBS affiliate.

UWNEO and WEAO, the Kent-based PBS affiliate, finished installation of digital equipment in its control room last year and is planning work needed to upgrade the transmission side. The total cost is expected to be $4.8 million, said Bill Glaeser, general manager.

Federal regulations give public television stations until May 2003 to have their digital signals ready.

John Morgan, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, said the key to bringing HDTV to the homes is cooperation from the cable companies. They are under no mandate to use digital signals, yet cable serves 85 percent of the homes in the country, he said.

"Not too many people are going to go out and put a big antenna on their homes," he said.

Availability: Receiving the digital signals over the air is an option, however. Each of the local stations has received a new channel number for digital operations. They will broadcast both analog and digital signals for at least a few years.

The networks are offering a limited number of programs in high-definition, but that number is expected to grow.

On the cable side, Time Warner has upgraded its system and is ready to offer high-definition programs when they are available, said Bill Jasso, a company spokesman. Since October, it has offered four premium movie channels in high definition, and they have been well received by customers with HDTV sets, he said.

Armstrong also has installed fiber-optic lines locally to handle digital signals, said Krista White, a company spokeswoman.

High-definition programs can't be received by Armstrong customers, however, because the company has to install some digital equipment in the area where signals are received from the television networks.

Armstrong also is researching what will be the best way to connect the digital signals into homes, White said. Time Warner is using a set-top box, but White said Armstrong is looking at other options.

White said Armstrong will be ready to deliver HDTV when programs are widely available and customers are asking for it.

Exposure: That's just a matter of the public's being exposed to it, television station executives say.

"I think when the consumer actually sees it, it will sell itself," said Bill Glaeser of the area PBS affiliate.

How fast HDTV catches on will determine how long the television stations must operate both analog and digital channels.

FCC regulations require stations to give up their analog licenses by Dec. 31, 2006, but only if at least 85 percent of homes in the area are capable of receiving HDTV. Morgan from the FCC said someone will have to go out and count the number of people who have HDTV sets or converter boxes.

Grdic from WFMJ said he doesn't think the Youngstown market will reach the 85 percent threshold by 2006.

Romine from WYTV said it's too early to gauge consumer acceptance of HDTV. Once programming is available on all three local stations, consumer acceptance could happen quickly, he said.

In the meantime, running two channels will be expensive because of increased electricity costs, the general managers said.

Morgan said consumers shouldn't worry about their analog TV sets' becoming obsolete.

Once TV stations switch to all digital, boxes will be readily available to convert digital signals into analog signals, he said. The boxes will be inexpensive once they are mass produced, he said.

shilling@vindy.com




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