I recently attended the convention of the Montana Broadcasters Association, and just a few weeks before that I had been at an event sponsored by the Washington State Association of Broadcasters.  Talking with small market TV Broadcasters in those states, an issue that does not affect major television markets but which complicates the digital transition has become clear.  In smaller markets in many states, particularly in some of the western states where there are multiple geographically dispersed cities in many television markets, there is at least one network affiliate in many cities that is either an LPTV or TV translator station.   As we’ve written before, LPTV and translator stations are not required to convert to digital by the February 2009 digital conversion deadline.  Instead, these stations can continue to operate in analog until an as yet unspecified date in the future.  While these stations are allowed to convert to digital, many do not have the resources to do so.  Thus, many of these stations will continue to broadcast in analog after the February 18 transition deadline.  What makes the issue particularly problematic is that most  DTV converters do not allow the "pass through" of analog programming, i.e. once they are hooked up, television sets only receive digital signals and analog signals are effectively blocked.  This presents the potential of marketplace confusion for those viewers who do not receive their signals from cable or satellite, as they will be getting conflicting messages – being told to get a digital converter to pick up the full-power stations in a market as they convert to digital, but if the consumer buys the wrong converter box, they will not be able to receive other LPTV and translator stations in the same market.

The problem has been exaggerated as converter boxes with analog pass through have been delayed in reaching the marketplace.  When I bought converter boxes in Washington, DC early last month, neither of the two major electronics retailers had the converter boxes with analog pass-through available.  A well-reviewed box from EchoStar was supposed to hit stores last month, but it is in short supply.  I can find it on-line only at the Dish Network’s (owned by EchoStar) own website.  Thus, for households who buy and connect most of the available digital converter boxes, suddenly their analog LPTV stations are gone.  In some of these smaller Western markets, that may mean the loss of one or more local network affiliates.

So why don’t the LPTV station’s just convert to digital?  One reason is cost.  In these small markets, the revenues are naturally much lower than those available to a large market TV station.  So the cost of the mandatory conversion of the full-power station with which the low power or translator is associated already strains the budget of the local station.  The costs to convert the LPTV or translator station are necessarily secondary.  And, I have been told, in many cases it runs several hundred thousand dollars to convert even an LPTV to digital, so it puts a strain on a local licensee to pay to make the transition at any time, much less as at the same time as the associated full powered station makes the required switch to digital.  And in some markets, stations may have multiple translators that need to be converted, and in some places, those translators are not even owned by the primary station but by poorly funded municipal authorities or voluntary TV associations formed to bring TV reception to rural areas.  Certainly, these organizations are hard-pressed to pay for a digital conversion of the translators they operate.  And the residents of these very rural areas in small western markets like those in Montana are the ones least likely to get cable or local-into-local satellite service. 

Thus, stations in these smaller markets have an even harder and more nuanced consumer education task ahead of them.  They must get viewers ready for the digital transition for the full-power stations in the market, but they must also let consumers know that only certain digital converter boxes will allow the reception of the translators and LPTV stations that are not making the conversion.  The Wilmington test (about which we wrote here) will provide one test of how this message will be received, as there is at least one LPTV station in that market that is not making the digital conversion in September.  But the real test as to how well the message gets out will be next February.  LPTV and translator  stations form an integral part of the television industry especially in western markets, and they cannot be abandoned.  Thus, the entire industry must join in efforts to recognize and ameliorate their issues to the extent possible, so that everyone is ready for next year’s digital transition.