At least one broadcaster's transition to digital TV could soon be coming to an end many years before anyone expected.
Broadcasters have been saying for more than a decade that the switch to DTV was all pain and no gain — meaning a lot of up-front costs with no additional advertising revenue.
But for station WWAC, channel 53 in Atlantic City, N.J., quickly converting to digital — and shutting down analog service — could have a lucrative upside, thanks in large part to an Federal Communications Commission ruling handed down nearly two years ago.
WWAC is a full-power UHF station on the edge of the Philadelphia TV market. The independent station is owned by Lenfest Broadcasting LLC.
In a recent ruling, the FCC said WWAC could cease analog transmission at any time and serve the public only with its digital service, which began operation in August. WWAC is the first U.S. TV station making the digital transition to receive permission to cease analog broadcasting, an FCC source said.
Cable gains coming
The vast majority of TV stations expect to operate analog and digital TV services for many years to come, because consumers need time to acquire digital reception equipment.
WWAC's story is different. When that broadcaster goes digital, it won't lose any cable homes. That's because in a January 2001 ruling that did not garner much attention, the FCC held that a digital-only TV station may demand analog carriage on area cable systems.
Had the FCC held that digital-only stations could be carried only on digital tiers, WWAC would lose about 75 percent of its cable homes by shutting down its analog signal.
The potential windfall for WWAC is derived from the fact that its digital tower is situated 35 miles closer to the heart of the Philadelphia market than its analog tower. That means WWAC expects to assert is digital must-carry rights for an area covering 1.8 million cable homes, compared with 575,000 for its analog signal. (WWAC is already carried throughout the Philadelphia market on satellite by EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network and DirecTV Inc.)
"We are hoping there's a good possibility of that," said WWAC general manager Bob Lund.
The Philadelphia market is Comcast Corp.'s home turf, and the MSO would need to find a valuable analog channel position for WWAC. The only thing WWAC needs to do, under FCC rules, is supply Comcast with the headend equipment to convert the digital signal to analog.
MSO could challenge
A Comcast spokeswoman said the company was aware of the WWAC situation and holding discussions with the broadcaster. Comcast is entitled to challenge the scope of WWAC's carriage rights at the FCC.
WWAC is not rushing to shut down its analog signal, Lund said.
The station, he said, must be mindful of its audience members that do not have digital TVs and do not subscribe to cable or direct-broadcast satellite.
The analog shutdown might not occur for a few years, Lund said.
"We are looking carefully at that," he said. "We just have not determined when that will be yet."
Nevertheless, in a Sept. 24 letter to the FCC, WWAC's lawyer said the termination of analog broadcasting would have an "imperceptible" effect on exclusively off-air viewers because there were so few of them — about 2,677 households.
WWAC said third-party surveys showed that none of the off-air only households reported viewing the station.