In part one of a two-part interview, the Raycom CTO offers a plan for smoothing the final DTV transition and preventing mobs of angry villagers from storming the gates of the FCC on Feb. 18, 2009.
Like other broadcast engineers, Dave Folsom is spending a good deal of time thinking about and preparing for the final DTV transition on Feb. 17, 2009.
As vice president and chief technology officer of Raycom Media, Folsom oversees 42 TV stations in 18 markets with a combined reach of more than 10% of U.S. TV households. That’s a lot of transmitters, a lot of antennas and a lot of towers to make ready by transition day.
But Folsom has an idea that could grease the analog-to-digital conversion and make life easier not only for Raycom, but also for his fellow broadcasters and the FCC.
In the first of a two-part interview with TVNewsCheck, Folsom shares his plan for a one-year grace period after the transition date during which stations could complete their transmission and tower work.
Next week, in Part II, Folsom discusses how he is transforming Raycom’s stations so that they can produce more and better news without commensurate increases in the budget.
The following is an edited transcript.
Overall, where do you think we stand with regard to the digital transition?
The general public really doesn’t know anything. It is borne out by some FCC research that essentially says that virtually 60% of the U.S. public has no idea what’s happening in 700 days. They haven’t got a clue and, worse yet, they don’t know what they need to do to receive HDTV when it happens. So, we have this tremendous…I guess if you want to be positive about it, you would call it an opportunity.
How do you see it as an opportunity?
You have to look at it as an opportunity. If you look at it as a burden, then we’re already behind the eight ball. It’s going to happen whether we want it to or not. Congress has mandated it.
Now there may be a bunch of folks like in the last scene of Frankenstein going up to Congress with pitchforks and torches on Feb. 18, 2009, but that’s a different story.
How is Raycom doing with the DTV transition?
We’re not waiting for other organizations to move forward. We’re starting our public education very shortly. We’re developing a bunch of public service announcements leading up to the transition that are going to explain to people what is going to happen and what they can do to continue to receive their television programming.
We’re going to tell people that you have to buy an HDTV set, you have to be connected to cable or DBS or you have to buy a converter box. You’ve got to do one of the three and, if you don’t, then you won’t get television at all. If we can get that simple message out, we’ll have accomplished a lot.
That’s fine, but my question really is how is Raycom doing technically with regard to the transition?
Oh, technically, we’re doing fine. We’re up and running with HDTV in every one of our markets, except Maui, Hawaii. All of the broadcasters in Maui have the same issue. It’s a problem of locating a transmitter site, but it’s in the process of being built now. There’s very little land in Maui and the U.S. Air Force and the state of Hawaii want us off of the mountain where we have our sites now.
Do you have the right antennas on the right towers in the right places?
No, no. That’s a different issue. We’ve got the usual mix of out-of-core stations. We have antennas that are not in their final locations, we have power levels not at our final levels and we have many stations—I’ll pick a number, 25% to 30%—that will be reverting back to their old channels.
A lot of how that’s going to be handled will be determined after the FCC issues its Third Biennial Review. You know, none of us really knows how the transition’s going to take place. We know the date, but we don’t know the mechanics of it and that’s critical.
The federal law only says that everybody has to cease transmitting on their analog channel on Feb. 17, 2009, but it doesn’t say what has to happen with everything else. In other words, do you have to revert back to your new channel on that date? Can you continue to transmit on the old channel as long as it’s not outside the core? There are many unanswered questions that the FCC is still trying to answer.
When is the FCC going to issue that review so that everybody can do what they need to do?
It’s overdue. It’s way overdue, in fact. MSTV hosted a Webcast yesterday [March 12] with a panel that included an official from the FCC’s Media Bureau. He said he would be hard pressed to give a date.
They understand the pressure everybody’s under and the longer it takes them to get that out the more everybody is going to have to hustle when they finally hear what the mechanics are.
Given the fact that they still don’t know the rules of the game, are broadcasters really going to be able finish all their tower and transmission work prior to the transition?
Now I submitted a plan to the FCC in which we asked the FCC to do two things: one, grant special temporary authority that would allow a station, after the transition, to continue on its interim DTV channel for up to one year as long as it did not interfere above de minimus levels and, two, that it did not prevent anybody else from getting on the air that needs to get on the air. The station that is not on its final channel would be the station that would have to make whatever modification is needed in terms of reducing power.
To get an STA, all you would have to do is state your intentions to the FCC on a form in which you would declare that you would not be in violation of any of the rules for that one year. I call it a postcard form.
Let’s say 50 or more percent of the stations have to do something. Either they have to come out of core or they have to revert to their old channels. If that all happened on one date, the coordination would be beyond the tower crew capabilities, beyond the FCC’s ability to deal with all of the little skirmishes between stations.
But the STAs would, in effect, relax the operational rules during that first year.
It’s a coordination effort of pat your head and rub your belly all at the same time and it can’t all be done in a single day. Thinking that maybe during 2008 you can run up to it is also tough because there are twice as many TV stations on the air before the transition date as there will be after the transition date. So the coordination is actually easier after the transition because all the analog stations will be off the air.
That’s interesting. And from the consumer standpoint, it’s OK because the digital TV sets and converters are smart enough to find the stations whatever channel they are on.
Yes. The TV sets are adaptive. So, from the general public’s point of view, there shouldn’t be any confusion. There will be some antenna orientation issues for people who have outside antennas, but, given the overwhelming cable penetration nationwide, I think that is a minor problem.
What about coordination with cable?
The stations would be responsible for making sure the cable companies know where in the hell to find them. That can be a big deal. I used to be in Charlotte, N.C., and there were probably 30-plus cable companies carrying our NBC affiliate. Making sure they’re all informed about what you’re going to do and when would not be a small thing.
But the plan gives you and everybody else another year to do all the tower work right?
Exactly right. It would be nice if the FCC would give us two years to do this, but I think that’s probably unrealistic. If they just give us the year, I will consider that a success because virtually all we’ll have to do on the date of the transition is go over and shut off our analog transmitter. That will be all that has to happen that day.
My sense is that this plan may have increasing appeal at the FCC as we approach the transition.
The thing that I’m most concerned about is that the FCC is extremely short staffed. Broadcast television is only one small part of what they do and the Media Bureau has other things to deal with other than digital television transmission.
There are 1,700 TV stations in the country. What are they going to do when they suddenly get two or three hundred stations coming to them saying, gee, we want to operate this way or that way or work on this tower so we can move to that tower. There’s no way they can deal with it.
They’re not bad people. It’s just basically they’ve got no staff to deal with that kind of workload. So this transition idea gets the Congress off their back in terms of the transition date. They realize that they can’t go back and say, look, we need to move the date.
And the general public will never know what’s going on in the background because of the way DTV works. They’ll see their favorite shows on the channel where they’ve always seen them.