Thursday, February 19, 2009

In the Aftermath ...

The Night TV Was Dark

The DTV dust hasn’t quite settled yet, but KEYE TV (CBS) seems to have weathered a subdued storm after becoming Austin’s first TV station to turn off its analogue transmitter and go 100-percent digital. “We are proud to make history in Austin again. We were the first to go HD and now we’re the first to bring the digital signal to viewers, offering superior pictures and sound,” says Suzanne Black, KEYE news director. KEYE TV joined some 420 other stations across the nation in deciding to stick with the original February 17th date for the digital transition.

As soon has analogue went dark, the calls started coming into KEYE’s 24-hour phone bank. “We fielded about 700 calls in 36 hours, and our phone bank remains open.” Black said. “The most common questions were, ‘How do I hook up my box’ and ‘My box is hooked up, but I can’t see the picture.’” Many viewers had not set their TVs on Channel Three. As soon as they did, BINGO, they’d entered the digital age.

Across the nation, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) says the transition is about what they expected. “By and large TV households affected in those markets were ready," said Jonathan Collegio, NAB vice president for the digital television transition. “Of the estimated 12.4 million exclusively over-the-air TV households that were impacted … when 421 stations switched to digital, the FCC reported only 28,000 viewer calls – an incredibly small percentage of those affected. While call volume has generally been low, there were some hotspots that received more calls due to unique market situations,” the NAB news release says.

The Austin market may have been one of the “hotspots” with greater call volume, despite being one of the more cabled markets in the country. “Everyone has been gracious and understanding in why we made the choice to turn off our analog transmitter now, rather than waiting until June,” Black says. Public TV’s KLRU will go all digital next month. KTBC TV plans analogue broadcasts all the way to the new transition date, June 12. KVUE TV AND KXAN TV are assessing readiness on a month-by-month basis. Costs run into the tens of thousands of dollars to continue operating multiple transmitters all of them broadcasting on both bands. LIN TV operates three Central Texas stations, KXAN, KXAM (in the Hill Country), and KNVA (CW).

The remaining Austin TV stations will undoubtedly consider the bottom line as they consider whether to join KEYE in the totally digital world. Another factor affecting the bottom line is ratings. There is no clear picture yet on how the digital transition will be reflected in ratings. The ratings relate directly to revenue, and revenue, like the rest of the economy, is down. Ratings may well be why other stations didn’t go totally digital.

Sweeps months are four times a year, usually starting with February. Because of the planned digital transition, Nielsen pushed winter sweeps to March. Then, the government pushed the DTV deadline to June. Other stations continuing to broadcast in both digital and analogue may hope for a ratings boost. That remains to be seen. At any rate KEYE seems to be treating February is a sweeps month anyway, running an “Investigates” piece about City of Austin employees going bowling among other things during business hours.

The sweeps switch also disrupts station staff personal lives. “It’s unfortunate for families used to taking the week off for Spring break (or for SXSW for that matter),” says Michael Fabac, KXAN news director. “In our newsroom, we are planning special promotable content [for March]. True, the turnaround to May is tight, but we’ve had plenty of time to prepare!” May is the second sweeps month of the year. The other two are July and November.

Taking the long view, it will be interesting to see how this latest change in the Austin/Central Texas market will sort out. KEYE TV indeed is a station of firsts. It is also a station of change, having gone from independent KBVO TV in the 1980s to a Fox affiliate in the late ‘80s to CBS in the mid-1990s when the call letters became KEYE. KEYE is an aggressive competitor luring top talent from other stations. Going all digital with the current economy is a leap of faith.

All the Austin TV stations, once they are all digital [and I wish that were now] will have a different coverage area, a different footprint. With digital signals, either you have reception or you don’t. In one way, the playing field will be level. No longer will KTBC TV, Austin’s only VHF station, have the built-in power advantage. It takes more power to push a UHF signal than a VHF signal. That’s one reason why KTBC dominated the market for decades in the last millennium when the TV station was owned by the Johnson family. Ironically, it was the Johnson family’s creation of Capital Cable, now Time Warner Cable, that allowed other stations greater reach resulting in a shift in ratings. Any future shifts because of DTV, if any, may be minimal given cable penetration in the market at above 70-percent, not to mention subscriptions to satellite and AT&T U-verse. It will be fun watching the stations shuffle over the next few months.

And, oh, get ready for glitz of the March sweeps weeks. They begin February 28th.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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