June 15, 2007

Helderbergs DTV Tower, Albany, NY

With 18 months and counting until the February 18, 2009 deadline to shut down analog TV, we here at "Tower Site of the Week" are trying to chronicle as much of the nation's TV infrastructure as possible, since so much of it will change, and we're all about change here.

In many markets, the changes will be subtle - antennas coming and going from existing towers, transmitters moving in and out of existing buildings, but nothing more that the casual observer would notice.

Not so in Albany, where all of the market's broadcasters got together a few years back and decided that if DTV was going to be a reality in their market, it would bring with it a completely new shared transmission facility for everyone.

When planning for this project began in 1997, each of Albany's six major TV stations operated its own separate transmitter plant. Five stations - Freedom's CBS affiliate WRGB (Channel 6), Young's ABC affiliate WTEN (Channel 10), PBS outlet WMHT (Channel 17), Clear Channel's Fox affiliate WXXA (Channel 23) and Tribune's WB affiliate WEWB (Channel 45) were located at various spots around the Helderberg plateau, the hill southwest of Albany that's been home to TV and FM in the market since the forties. Hubbard's NBC affiliate WNYT (Channel 13), constrained by short-spacings to stations in Rochester and New York, was east of Albany on Bald Mountain. But with no spacing issues for DTV operations, WNYT joined in the Capital Region Broadcasters consortium, which spent some $5 million to build a new site in the Helderbergs from scratch.

There were a few more issues that needed to be resolved before the facility could get underway: WXXA was assigned DTV channel 4, an undesirable low-band channel that would have required a separate antenna, and it took several years to get WXXA reassigned to channel 7, where it could share a high-band VHF master antenna with WNYT-DT's channel 12. WRGB-DT 39, WTEN-DT 26 and WMHT-DT 34 were able to share a UHF master antenna, and WEWB (which was renamed WCWN when it became a CW outlet, and was eventually sold to Freedom) decided to move its analog channel 45 operation to this site as well, combining it and WCWN-DT 43 into a side-mounted antenna just below the VHF and UHF master antennas.

A June 2006 visit to the new building and the new 500' tower brought us inside most of the transmitter rooms, starting at WRGB, where engineers were working on one of the two transmitters. Down the hall, there's a huge generator room that can keep all these signals on the air no matter what's going on outside. Across the hall, the VHF combiner for 7 and 12 is floor-mounted in the combiner room, while the UHF combiner for 26, 34 and 39 hangs from the ceiling to save space. (This room also houses some government two-way gear.)

These rooms are very large, providing lots of expansion space for whatever comes next - and in the meantime, as you can see from the photos below, there's lots of empty space around most of these transmitters. (In our travels so far, we've only seen two other DTV sites that were so comprehensively designed to serve most or all of a market's DTV needs - the new DTV site in Syracuse, which ended up with only a few signals on it so far, and the WBZ digital facility in Boston, which was designed for four stations with room for several more. Any nominations for others we should see?)

The smallest, at least for now, is the Rohde and Schwartz channel 7 transmitter at WXXA-DT - and the most crowded room, unsurprisingly, is WCWN's, since it's housing both an analog and a digital transmitter.

The next step in Albany's DTV conversion will come in 2009, when most of these stations are expected to take their current sites dark. The one "what if" in the picture is WRGB, the only Albany DTV that's elected to stay on its current channel, 6, rather than its interim DTV channel, 39. At the time of our tour, nobody was certain whether WRGB would use its current analog site for DTV, or whether a new antenna will go up at this site for channel 6.

That's a good excuse to show you the WRGB analog site - and some more Helderberg towers as well. Join us next week for a trip back into Albany broadcasting history. In the meantime, check out more great Albany tower pics at NECRAT.com, and tune in to our sister site tophour.com for some Albany radio legal IDs.

Thanks to the engineering staffs of WRGB, WTEN, WXXA and WMHT for the tours!

The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is sold out! But we still have other back issues and more goodies availale at the Fybush.com Store - and check back soon for your first chance to order Tower Site Calendar 2008!