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Digital age provides new opportunities for station owners

When television stations all over the country replaced their analog transmitters with digital equipment in preparation for the switch to digital broadcasting, new bandwidth was created, opening some new opportunities.

On the new bandwith, stations were able to add subchannels, offering additional programming and possibly developing new revenue from commercials shown on those channels.

Several years after local stations converted to digital transmission, five new subchannels are now available to local viewers. Only one is programmed here -- ThinkBright and Well TV, which was created five years ago by WNED-TV, Channel 17, the local PBS affiliate.

WGRZ-TV, Channel 2, has added Universal Sports on Channel 2.2 and the Retro Television Network on Channel 2.3. And in 2010, WUTV-TV, Channel 29, added the Country Network on Channel 29.2 and Cool TV on Cool 49.2.

Local service providers -- Time-Warner Cable, FiOS, DirecTV and DISH Network -- place the subchannels in different spots; consult your TV listings or call your provider for details. Some providers do not offer some subchannels.

So far, the additional channels have not created a substantial revenue stream for the commercial stations, but that may happen in the future.

One roadblock for stations that would like to generate new programming on the subchannels is the FCC requirements that every broadcast channel provide three hours of educational children's programming a week, as well as emergency broadcast information.

Jim Toellner, president and general manager of WGRZ, says that when local stations first went to digital transmission, both his station and WIVB, showed weather radar on a vacant digital channel, but ran into a problem with the FCC programming requirements.

"We used to have a 24-hour weather station up, and it would cycle every 15 minutes to a national and local forecast." But when the station televised the required children's programming in a block on the weekends, "We would get all these calls, 'Why do you have kids' programming on?' 'Well, the FCC makes us.' "

> Local subchannels now

Universal Sports and RTV provide the required content without any additional work by his station, Toellner says.

But while they deal with whether and how to use their subchannels, executives of local television stations are looking forward to another change that may revolutionize television -- mobile television, or TV channels viewed on cell phones.

WGRZ, Channel 2, offers two subchannels. The Universal Sports subchannel, shown on Time Warner and Verizon FiOS, shows "all Olympics-type sports," says Toellner.

"When we get near the Olympics, all the Olympics trials will be on there. There's a lot of skiing, the New York marathon was on there, a lot of biking races, really any Olympic sports and a few other types of things."

Retro TV is seen only over the air and on FiOS, says Toellner. The channel shows old TV shows, including "Adam-12," "The Rifleman," "Kojak" and "Dragnet."

"With RTV, we don't insert commercials, we're just passing through the network feed at this time," says Toellner. "When we get some cable coverage we'll probably start inserting. Universal Sports is much like network. We get a portion of the commercials and they sell a portion of the commercials. We have some strategies that hopefully will play out with Universal Sports within a year or so, to have a bigger presence."

WUTV, Channel 29, the local Fox affiliate, and its sister station WNYO, Channel 49, offer the Country Network and TheCoolTV, two channels that offer music videos and concerts.

"We are partnered with another company to offer some unique programming that hopefully in the future we can sell," says Nick Magnini, general manager of WUTV and WNYO. "We're not selling it right now, but we will sell it. We're in the broadcast business, and today, if you can't sell it, you aren't doing it. This is something completely different, and we do believe there are some future revenue possibilities."

Magnini says both the channels offer "what MTV was originally designed to be, amazing videos of 2- and 3-minute songs. You can have them on as background music, or you can watch what's going on."

Both channels also offer concert coverage, Magnini says, "so we hope in the future there would be a Buffalo concert they can put on there too, go to Artpark, for example, tape a concert."

Each local broadcast station has the capability to add around four subchannels, Magnini says, but "the reality now is that in a market like Buffalo, and almost any market, there's not enough revenue in the marketplace to support 10 or 12 television stations."

"That's the reason why WUTV is married to WNYO and why WIVB is married to WNLO. These things work because there is no hard cost as far as managing and servicing them," he said. "The backroom operations are small, that's why they work. You could never, in almost any market, keep adding stations, because there just isn't the revenue."

Chris Musial, president and general manager of WIVB-TV, Channel 4, says, "For the foreseeable future, the near term anyway, we're just going to stick with clean and pure WIVB Channel 4 on 4.1, and CW-23 on 23.1."

Of the FCC requirements for children's programming, Musial says, "I don't know if concern is the right word, but that's always a consideration, because your first reaction is, what the heck, if I want to check the weather on Saturday morning, what are these cartoons doing on there?"

Bill Ransom, president and general manager of WKBW, Channel 7, says there has been some national discussion of buying back unused airwaves to reallocate the bandwidth for other purposes.

"With Congress talking about buying back everybody's spectrum, a lot of groups are holding out, thinking, 'Do I make more money programming it or selling it back?' So you have to weigh that analysis," says Ransom.

The only local station to program another locally produced channel on the extra bandwidth is WNED, which has produced a second channel, now called ThinkBright and Well TV, on one of its subchannels for five years.

ThinkBright, which focuses on health and wellness, is shown in a few other cities across the state, including Watertown, Albany, Plattsburgh and Binghamton, and may soon be shown in Toronto, says Donald K. Boswell, president and CEO.

"The Rogers cable system is so interested in that channel that they are working with the Canadian Regulatory Television Commission to have that come into Toronto. We may be a month or two from that decision, but it all looks very positive. They find the things that we are doing related to health and wellness is not being done in their marketplace."

WNED is content with the amount of programming it does on those two channels, Boswell says. "Our feeling is that between ThinkBright and WNED, that's just about what we can handle, in a budgeting sense, and that's the quality we can maintain," he says. "Our strategy and mandate is to hold on to those two channels and make them the best that we can."

> Live on your cell phone

Station executives are keeping a close eye on another promising broadcast development: the transmission of complete digital television signals to mobile devices such as cell phones.

Gannett, LIN Media, Fox and Sinclair Broadcast Group are among the nation's major media companies that belong to the Open Mobile Video Coalition, formed in 2007 to set up a single standard for the technology.

The coalition's website says that mobile television ad revenue could reach $2 billion annually. A successful test in Washington, D.C., has television officials intrigued. "Basically, if you have a [properly equipped] cell phone, you'll be able to watch our channel on it, over the air," says Toellner.

Once the specific technology is settled, customers must buy cell phones set up to receive the signals -- and that could happen by next Christmas, Toellner says.

"The next cycle of phones that people buy, maybe a year to 18 months from now, will all be mobile-enabled. They are still trying to figure this all out, whether it's going to be an extra pay service that the cell phone companies participate in, or free, or whether it's going to be a mixture like TV is," he said.

"We'll be using some of our spectrum for that in the not-too-distant future. Gannett is a big part of this Open Mobile Video Coalition, and some of our bigger markets are going to be going to this very quickly," Toellner said.

"In six months, 12 months or 18 months, I think we are going to start to see that being available," said Musial. "The technology is here now with the digital transmission, so the signal is there, now it's just figuring out what technology works best, how you get that information to the most people in a reliable manner with strong signals, and then getting the manufacturers to start cranking out cell phones that will reliably pick up the signal that's out there."

Realistically here in Western New York, we're looking at 18 months to 24 months, but you never know," he said.

"There's a big push for mobile TV within the industry, and every station wants to do it," says Ransom. "With all these apps, pads and tablets, I think it's going to break wide open."

"Where we stand as an individual television station in that process, it's on our radar screen, but if you asked whether we would do it this year, I don't know," says Ransom. "On the football game last night, there was a commercial, a young guy sitting watching a wall-mounted monitor. He gets up, puts on his coat, pulls it off the wall, folds it up and takes it with him. That shows you how mobile it is, and that's the direction in which it's going to go."

"Sinclair Broadcasting is also a leader in the Open Mobile Video Coalition," says Magnini. "We are trying to get all the technology improved, so you can walk around and watch 'Seinfeld' at 10 o'clock on your phone."

Magnini says the service will draw people who are in places where they would not be able to watch TV.

"It won't take away from the viewing at home. You're not all going to sit around and watch your little phone vs. a 52-inch HD set," he says. "This will be for the person who's working a night shift or waiting at the airport. We see it as additional viewers, not shifted viewers. There's no way anybody is going to sit home and watch it on a phone, no matter how big your phone is."

But, he says for those who can't be home, "I think being able to watch 'American Idol' on your phone will be incredible."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com