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More digital channels coming

What's the future of local television?

It may include launching a local, Google-like search engine, a Health and Wellness Channel, a second 24-hour weather channel, sending news reports from the field using Internet technology and sending the news to cell phones.

But it is hard to predict exactly when the future will arrive because station general managers don't want to give away their secrets to competitors.

Channel 2 was the first to take advantage of the extra digital space for new channels by last year introducing a 24-hour channel, "Weather Plus." Jim Toellner, general manager of the NBC affiliate, said Channel 2 "will soon" be able to add a third channel.

Toellner said that the Gannett station, which has seen Web site revenue increase "exponentially" in 2006, is looking into launching a "robust" local search engine that would allow local Internet subscribers to find anything about a topic - say golf - in our area.

Channel 2 also is exploring the idea of having its reporters in the field use Internet technology to send reports on the air or Web rather than use more expensive satellites.

While it may be a few years before Channel 2's newscasts are produced in high definition, Toellner said the station will be producing "some highly visual HD specials" in 2007. He added the station plans to increase its "podcasts" and to deliver news, weather and sports reports to cell phones.

Chris Musial, general manager of WIVB-TV, said Channel 4 could eventually program three so-called sub-channels through the digital spectrum.

The options being explored include starting an extra weather channel and carrying syndicated programming on another entertainment-type channel. "I think it may be a ways away," said Musial.

And don't expect any Channel 4 newscasts to be produced in HDTV anytime soon, either. "I think that will be really close to the 2009 deadline," Musial said. Under federal rules, analog TV signals will end in 2009, by which time stations must switch to digital transmission.

Bill Ransom, general manager of WKBW-TV, said the Granite Broadcasting station "is exploring opportunities of taking full advantage of digital spectrum." But he declined to say what they were.

For now, Channel 7 is concentrating on its arrangement with WNGS, which has allowed it to carry a nightly sports program and other sports programming.

Nick Magnini, general manager of the two Sinclair Broadcasting stations, WUTV and WNYO, has to deal with viewer complaints that are out of his hands. Sinclair's national disagreements with cable companies, including Time Warner, have prevented the stations from airing in HDTV on cable.

But Magnini notes that the stations have been fully digital since the summer and have been offering HD since then over-the-air.

Don Boswell, the general manager of WNED-TV, notes the local PBS station has already made good use of its digital spectrum by programming Channel 17, its new ThinkBright channel, and HD channel. It is also leasing equipment to the new local Muslim TV channel, Bridges TV, to enable it to broadcast nationally.

"My feeling is we have room for one more channel," said Boswell. "I love the idea of a Health and Wellness Channel. In my mind, we're three years away from that."

Steve Jaworowski, a Time Warner vice president, says the cable operator plans to offer a service to digital subscribers in 2007 called Start Over that allows viewers to start programs from the beginning if they join them in progress.