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Delays are the norm as local TV stations go digital

Monday, December 06, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

By now Pittsburgh affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC should all be sending out digital signals for high definition television. But so far only WTAE is broadcasting in HDTV -- on digital Channel 51, as it has since earlier this year.

Other local stations, which were expected to broadcast in digital by Nov. 1, got extensions from the FCC because of various delays.

It appears WPXI will be on the air in digital by the end of this week. Glenn Romsos, director of engineering at Channel 11, said one last piece needs to be put in place this week and then the station will be ready to broadcast on digital Channel 48.

"The tower guys are anxious to get out of here," Romsos said.

And that's the reason so many stations here and across the country have encountered delays: There aren't enough qualified crews to work on TV station towers.

Jerry Kalke, KDKA director of engineering, said he expects to be broadcasting on digital Channel 25 by the end of this month or the middle of January.

WPGH is running the furthest behind. An antenna and transmitter have been ordered. But Harvey Arnold, director of engineering for Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns WPGH, said 'PGH won't be broadcasting on digital Channel 43 until spring. (WB and UPN affiliates don't have to go digital until May 1, 2002, and PBS stations have until May 1, 2003.)

Although none of the top four stations needed to build a new tower from scratch, major improvements needed to be made in some cases. Channel 11's parking lot has been littered with parts from the tower as workers installed a new top section. KDKA had to reshuffle antennas at the top of its tower, stacking the Channel 25 antenna atop the regular analog Channel 2 antenna.

HDTV broadcasts offer the highest resolution and clearest picture possible. Stations have the option of forgoing HDTV and using a standard digital signal that would allow them to offer multiple channels, but WPXI and KDKA plan to broadcast in HDTV.

TV stations are spending millions for this new equipment and the power to send out digital signals, but viewers will pay, too. Both Circuit City and Best Buy stores in Pittsburgh sell HDTV-ready sets. At Best Buy sets range in cost from $1,699 to $6,500 depending on size, format (i.e. widescreen) and whether the set has a built-in digital decoder.

But there's no need to rush out and buy one today. Under FCC rules, stations will continue to broadcast their current analog signals until 2006, and most industry insiders think it will be several years beyond that before analog signals are shut off.

Currently only a handful of shows on ABC and NBC are broadcast in HDTV, but KDKA's Kalke said most of CBS's prime-time lineup Monday through Friday is available in digital.

Although few people own sets capable of receiving digital signals, engineers from each station in town say they've received calls from viewers wondering about digital.

"It's not a huge number of people based on the cost of the sets, but a couple dozen people around Pittsburgh are watching," said WTAE director of engineering David Kasperek. "It's the leading-edge people who want to be the first to have a set."

WPXI PRE-EMPTS: Channel 11 will preempt an original "Suddenly Susan" (with guest star Jerry Springer!) and a "Veronica's Closet" repeat tonight for a one-hour news special on the station's favorite topic: Y2K. Channel 11 has no plans to run "Susan" or "Veronica" in alternate time slots.

Although I'm not a fan of affiliate preemptions of network shows -- especially original episodes -- at least Channel 11 picked two awful shows to pre-empt. Why NBC hasn't canceled these unfunny sitcoms yet is beyond me.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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