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Digital-TV Transition Delay Costs Local Stations

Now that the feds have pushed back the date for the digital transition to June--heck, what's another delay?--Tucson's television stations will follow suit and hold off on turning off their analog signals, with hopes of giving viewers who may not be ready for the switch yet another opportunity to make the necessary changes.

Stations are still allowed to switch on Feb. 17 if they desire, but general managers like Gary Nielsen at KVOA Channel 4 and Tod Smith at KMSB Channel 11 say they're "going with the market" and holding off until the new June 12 deadline. The same holds true with KOLD Channel 13.

"Although everyone has the right to do what they want, my impression is that collectively, we think it better serves the public for all the Tucson stations to wait until the final deadline to switch off the analog," said KOLD general manager Jim Arnold.

There's plenty of debate about how beneficial the delay will be. Estimates place the number of homes not ready for the switch in the neighborhood of 6 percent, and there are fears that many aren't ready due to procrastination. Hence, the same folks who aren't ready now may not be ready by June 12.

Furthermore, some of the technical issues that have cropped up with converter boxes and their difficulties with regional dark spots (an issue to be addressed more in-depth in a later Media Watch) probably will not be fixed between now and the new date.

The big loser could be the local TV stations that have to foot a hefty bill to keep their analog signals running, the latest in a series of expenses they've had to endure because of the government's digital mandate.

"It will cost us all quite a bit in electricity to keep the analogs on, which no one budgeted for, but it will stifle some confusion and give those who continue to wait a chance to get settled into the coming new environment," said Arnold in an e-mail last week.

In an interview before the delay announcement, Arnold expressed frustration with the government's actions.

"The electricity alone will cost our company $245,000 a month by not being able to turn off our analog transmitter," said Arnold. "People get so angry with KOLD and thousands of other stations when the government has forced us to go digital. We've already (collectively) invested more than $100 million in going from analog to digital. That was $100 million we had to spend, because Congress told us we had to: 'We can auction off your old frequency.'"

In Arnold's view, the government forced television stations to pay for the upgrade so the feds could make money on those frequencies from phone companies.

"The other people are making it sound like those frequencies are being used for emergency services. Part of that is true," Arnold said. "The part that Congress doesn't tell you about is they're going to auction off the other frequencies to try to raise money, to sell to phone companies and things like that. ... I think it was a congressional money grab. I had someone tell me the TV stations should have the guts to tell Congress we're not going to do this, end of story. (But) we're licensed by the government."

For those who are ready for the transfer, take solace in the knowledge that you're probably going to be able to see another four months of DTV infomercials.


TO COVER OR NOT TO COVER?

Local television news outlets approached a couple of fairly significant events in different ways.

Because of its tie-in with the Super Bowl, NBC affiliate KVOA Channel 4 sent news anchor Tom McNamara and sports director Ryan Recker to Tampa Bay to provide a week's worth of coverage as the Arizona Cardinals made their first appearance in the extravaganza. KOLD Channel 13 shipped sports editor Damien Alameda to Tampa as well, but his stories took on the look of Chamber of Commerce features as opposed to anything directly related to the game. KGUN Channel 9 did not send a representative to Tampa Bay.

Compare that with the way KVOA (and, to a lesser degree, news-sharing partner KMSB Channel 11) covered ABC's Extreme Makeover taping. KVOA's coverage was close to that of KGUN, which has the natural tie-in due to its ABC affiliation. KOLD chose not to mention the event.

There are hardliners who view any mention of something tied to the competition as off-limits, the thought process being: Why give the competition free advertising? The other school of thought: Let's not neglect an event of some significance just because it's tied to someone else.

I tend to land in the latter camp. This issue pops up from time to time when I talk sports on KCUB AM 1290. KCUB is a Fox Sports affiliate, yet the better-known sports network is ESPN, which has a local affiliation with KFFN AM 1490. It's not out of the realm of possibility that a sports story could break while we're live, and it's a pretty strong possibility the best source for that information will come from ESPN. So what would we do? Ignore the story? Ignore that we're watching it develop on the only network probably providing information? Do we ignore all that stuff about the better-known college-basketball expert who says Arizona is on the bubble?

A former local sports-talk-show host at KCUB would refer to ESPN as "that other four-letter network." I have to admit that occasionally, I've bypassed a mention of the competition, for some reason, at the spur of the moment, giving in to some old-school mentality that creeps up from the depths of my broadcast-school training. And almost always, upon further review, I think something like, "Boy, that sounded stupid."

I'm all about the cheap plug for the station cutting the check, but if I'm making some vague reference about, say, the worldwide leader in sports, it's probably safe to assume the listener--likely a sports fan who has a working knowledge of this ESPN thing--can figure out what's going on. To me, that's worse than pretending it doesn't exist.

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