In this week’s issue… Repack deadline leaves some signals hanging – Alt, Breeze relaunch in Albany – Format flip in Olean – Simulcast split in NYC – More power in the Maritimes
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*If you know a TV station engineer anywhere in the northeast, this would be a good week to buy them a beer – if they’re not headed out for a well-deserved vacation after the most chaotic week in over-the-air TV the region has seen since at least the 2009 analog shutdown.
As NERW readers know by now, Friday marked the end of Phase 4 of the FCC’s big repack of the digital TV spectrum, the 39-month process that’s compressing TV stations down to a smaller chunk of VHF and UHF spectrum that will now encompass only channels 2 through 36 after selling the former channels 38-51 to wireless companies.
And as attentive NERW readers also know by now, Phase 4 was the part of the repack with the biggest effect on stations in our neck of the woods. From southern Maine down to Philadelphia and all the way over to northeast Ohio, more than 100 full-power stations and dozens of LPTVs had to coordinate a complicated dance to build out facilities for their new channels, all to be ready to switch over almost simultaneously as the phase came to an end.
Read on for our in-depth report on how it all turned out…
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In some areas, it went fairly smoothly: in New York City, in particular, most of the signals that had to move in Phase 4 all happened to be co-located at the fairly new 1 World Trade Center broadcast facility, which was designed with the repack in mind. With two broadband antennas and two combiner systems, it was (relatively) simple to set up one combiner with all the pre-repack channels at somewhat reduced power, then switch over to the other combiner and antenna with the post-repack configuration that shifted some big stations including WCBS-TV (33 to 36), WNJU/WNBC (36 to 35) and Fox’s WNYW (44 to 27).
Philadelphia’s UHF moves (including NBC’s WCAU, 34 to 28, and CBS’ KYW-TV, 26 to 30) also appeared to go fairly smoothly.
In other areas, though, the repack brought bigger complications, nowhere more so than in Boston, the most complex repack market of all.
Boston’s repack included the near-complete rebuild of two of the market’s three big American Tower sites, with several of the market’s biggest stations turning off pre-repack facilities at the old WBZ-TV tower in Needham and beginning their pre-repack existence on what will eventually be their auxiliary site at the former UHF candelabra site down the road above the Needham Sheraton.
With somewhat lower power and a somewhat directional antenna, those signals (WBZ-TV, 30 to 20; WCVB, 20 to 33; WGBX/WYCN, 43 to 32) weren’t always coming in right away for viewers at the edge of the market, who may have to wait for the Cedar Street tower to have its post-repack work completed so those stations can return to full power there. WFXT, meanwhile, also appeared to have reception issues after its move from 31 to 34, in part thanks to very strong co-channel interference from Hartford’s WTIC-TV, which also went from 31 to 34.
Several other stations changed tower sites as part of the repack: Ion’s WBPX/WDPX went from 32 at the “FM128” tower in Newton to 22 out at the former Channel 66 tower in Hudson, shifting its signal westward away from the core of the market. Inbound, meanwhile, was Telemundo’s WNEU, which moved from 34 way up on Mount Uncanoonuc in New Hampshire to 29 at the Cedar Street tower, bringing its signal to many Boston viewers who’d never been able to get it over the air.
(From its old New Hampshire facility, WNEU had carried “NBC Boston” on its 60.2 subchannel; in Needham, WNEU is using 60.2 for TeleXitos, leaving NBC Boston to end up eventually on just a single signal from that site. That will be WYCN-CD channel-sharing with public TV WGBX, using WGBX’s channel 32 signal to carry NBC on 15.1 and Cozi TV on 15.2. The other NBC Boston signal, low-power WBTS, remains on the air for now on RF 46/virtual 8 but will soon be moving south into the Providence market, presumably to carry Telemundo there. It’s all less confusing than it looks, since most Boston viewers see NBC on “10” via cable or satellite, and the WYCN 15.1 signal now enjoys full-power coverage of the market via WGBX.)
Which brings us to the biggest signal loss out of the Boston shuffle: WGBH (Channel 2) sold off its UHF spectrum in the auction, trading RF 19 for low-band VHF on RF 5 from the former candelabra site. How well would that signal reach viewers who don’t, for the most part, have low-band VHF antennas these days?
The answer, unsurprisingly, turned out to be “not great, thanks.” Even with rooftop antennas, the 5 signal’s first few days appeared to be problematic anywhere much beyond the Route 128 loop. (Even the receivers powering the Locast streaming service seemed to be getting only a patchy signal on RF 5 – and let’s not get started with how slowly services like TiVo provided updates to over-the-air receivers in their systems, leaving blank screens and program guides for many.)
Expecting some issues with reception of its main WGBH 2 program stream, WGBH put up a standard-definition simulcast as “44.2” over the big WGBX UHF signal – but along the way, WGBX’s 44.1 HD signal ended up on the WGBH RF 5 stream, along with 2.1 in HD, WGBH Kids on 2.4 and business TV WFXZ-CD on 24.1.
While WGBH is already talking about requesting a power increase for the RF 5 signal, we continue to expect that in the long run, those HD 2.1 and 44.1 feeds will have to end up on WGBX, the signal that will be more easily visible to most antenna viewers.
(WGBH’s woes were replicated in Pittsburgh, where fellow public broadcaster WQED gave up high-band VHF 13 at auction in favor of low-band VHF 4, leading to similar reception complaints in that terrain-challenged market. We discussed that scenario at length with Jason Togyer on his “Two Rivers, 30 Minutes” radio show last week, along with some other repack challenges. There’s another low-band VHF challenge still to come in Providence, once public broadcaster WSBE makes its move from 21 to 2 in an upcoming phase.)
About those upcoming phases: in several smaller markets, broadcasters who weren’t able to get their repack rebuilds done in time successfully persuaded the FCC to let them move their channel change to a later phase. In Scranton, WOLF-TV couldn’t get a tower crew in time, so it’s staying on RF 45 and postponing its move to 22; WNEP/WVIA, meanwhile, were supposed to go from 50 to 16 but are delayed by potential interference issues with police radio signals in New York City that share that RF 16 spectrum.
Upstate viewers of Ion stations gained or lost, depending on where they were, as those stations moved towers: Albany-market WYPX relocated from Amsterdam to the main Helderbergs mountaintop site serving the core of the market; Syracuse-market WSPX from a remote site near Oneida Lake to the WSYR-TV tower closer to the city; and Buffalo-market WPXJ from Pavilion in Genesee County to the former WNYO-TV tower in Wyoming County, adding better service to Buffalo and southern Ontario but losing its fringe coverage of Rochester in the process.
And about Buffalo: the ongoing shuffle of tower sites there might not have changed reception for most viewers right in town, but the passionate crowd of antenna users in southern Ontario sure noticed. Many of them gained Ion service from WPXJ and MyNetwork service from WNYO, which relocated to Grand Island – but lost CBS and CW via WNLO/WIVB, which moved from Grand Island back to the former WIVB site to the south in Colden.
One final note for now (though we’ll surely be revisiting the repack at length later on): while the repack wasn’t supposed to change anyone’s virtual channels, we know of at least three stations that shifted. In Boston, WCEA-LD had been virtual 58, using 58.3 to avoid conflicting with WDPX’s channel-share (as 58.1) with WBPX. With WCEA’s move to RF 26, it’s now using virtual 26 as well. In New York, WNWT-LD was analog as 3 and 51, but now it’s channel-sharing with sister station WJLP on RF 3, where it bounced through several virtual channels in quick succession before landing on… 37.1. (It’s legal, even though it looks weird to anyone who knew “37” was a taboo channel in the analog UHF days.) And in southern Ontario, CITS-TV (YES) traded virtual 36.1 for 14.1 when it moved from RF 36 to RF 14.
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*We begin our NEW YORK report in Albany, where Townsquare brought “Alt” back to the FM dial Thursday, one month after dropping the modern rock format from WQSH (105.7). When WQSH picked up the “Q” classic rock format that had been on WQBK (103.9 Rensselaer)/WQBJ (103.5 Cobleskill), the 103.5/103.9 combo spent all of July as a sort of shadow-cast of the new Q105.7, running the same music log with reminders to tune up the dial to 105.7.
The start of August brought two new formats to the longtime 103.5/103.9 simulcast, with “Alt” taking the big 103.5 signal that rimshots Albany from the west, while the in-town 103.9 signal went to soft AC as “the Breeze.” The 103.9 calls will change to WPBZ-FM, sending the WQBK calls up to 105.7; 103.5 will apparently remain WQBJ.
(And yes, this means Albany once again has two stations branding as “Alt,” since the format and slogan have stayed in place on Pamal’s “Alt 104.9” WINU.)
In Olean, Seven Mountains launched a new classic hits format last week on WHDL (1450) and its 107.1 translator, dumping top-40 “Hot 107.1” in favor of “Big Oly 107.1.” The new format replaces the legacy WHDL calls with WOLY after seven decades. Gary Nease, who’s news director for sister WPIG, will do mornings, while WPIG morning co-host Danni Lee programs the new “Oly.”
In New York City, Univision is trying yet another new format on its low-rated WQBU (92.7 Garden City), flipping “La Nueva 92.7” from regional Mexican to a Spanish-language soft AC format similar to its higher-rated neighbor on the dial, SBS’ WPAT-FM (93.1 Paterson). Univision also has a new HD3 tenant on its WXNY (96.3), which has picked up the Russian-language format that had been heard on WPLJ (95.5)’s HD2 until the end of June. The Russians displace a simulcast of WADO (1280) from 96.3-HD3.
Two notches up the dial, EMF has finalized its HD lineup on WARW (96.7 Port Chester), where K-Love Classics (formerly on HD3) has landed on 96.7-HD2, while 96.7-HD3 carries the Radio Nueva Vida network, which leases HD space from EMF in other markets as well. So far, EMF’s new New York flagship, WPLJ, hasn’t fired up its HD signal, which is expected to carry Air 1 on HD2 and Classics on HD3.
After almost seven years, the full-time simulcast of WFAN-FM (101.9) and WFAN (660) will break for a few hours Thursday night, when the Yankees-Blue Jays game goes FM-only and the AM side splits off for a Giants preseason game. The brief split is made possible by a change in Nielsen’s single-line reporting rules for AM/FM simulcasts, where 100% duplication is no longer required for both signals to have their ratings counted together, and it will probably happen again when the football and baseball teams’ schedules collide over the next couple of months (into, sigh, the Yankees’ postseason.) There’s no reason, though, to think that any bigger split of 660 and 101.9 is in the offing.
*When Howard Lapides died on Thursday in the San Fernando Valley, he was remembered (and rightly so) primarily for his last few decades out west as a producer and talent manager who represented some of the funniest people in LA, including Jimmy Kimmel, Tom Green, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Carson Daly.
But his weekly gatherings to watch Bills games were a clue that his roots were back here in western New York, where he was one of the teen jocks on WYSL-FM (103.3) in his native Buffalo back in the late 1960s. Heading eastward to Emerson College in Boston, Lapides produced Steve Fredericks’ WMEX talk show and did weekends at WEIM in Fitchburg, then crossed the border to spend five years with Baton Broadcasting in Canada at CKLW in Windsor and CFGO in Ottawa.
He circled back to Buffalo to help out with what started as a one-off stint doing a post-game Bills broadcast, which ended up with a much longer involvement with the team and WBEN even as he launched his West Coast career.
Lapides was just 68 and had been suffering from colon cancer.
*In western PENNSYLVANIA, veteran WDVE (102.5 Pittsburgh) afternoon host Sean McDowell got a big sendoff last week, culminating in a live remote from the Marriott Pittsburgh City Center for his last show on Wednesday. He’d been with DVE for 26 years and in radio for 41, starting at the old WYDD and then at WHYW/WMYG (now WRRK). Guests on his final show included Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, who declared “Sean McDowell Day” in the city. On Thursday, WDVE introduced Chad Tyson as McDowell’s replacement, sliding east from sister station WEGW (107.5) in Wheeling, WV. At night, WDVE will now be tracked by Russ Rose, who does middays on sister WXDX.
Up in the North Hills, the five towers of KQV (1410) are now four: keen eyes over the weekend spotted one of the five towers gone, the work of new site owner Vertical Bridge. That AM site, which was in use from 1947 until KQV went silent a year and a half ago, will apparently be reused in part for cellular and other wireless purposes; the KQV license, meanwhile, is in the hands of Bob Stevens and eventually set to return as a non-directional signal from the tower of sister WEDO (810 McKeesport) in White Oak Township.
And it’s not just KQV dropping nighttime directional operation. Up in Corry, east of Erie, WWCB (1370) is applying to drop two of its three towers, going from 500 watts DA down to 14 watts non-directional at night while remaining 1 kW ND by day.
*In Philadelphia, Radio One’s WPPZ (Classix 107.9) added the Russ Parr Morning Show last week. The latest version of Parr’s syndicated offering originates at sister station WMMJ in Washington and returns Parr to a market where he was last heard two decades ago on WPHI (103.9). Parr’s show will be the first morning show since Classix launched last December, running the wakeup shift jockless.
*Out at the NEW JERSEY shore, the casino market of Atlantic City is a logical place to launch a new gambling-oriented sports talk format, which is why the new “BetR Network” will make WBSS (1490 Pleasantville) one of its first two outlets, alongside the other obvious choice of Las Vegas (via KBAD 920). BetR’s launch today on 1490 replaces a placeholder simulcast of oldies WTKU (98.3) that had been running for the last few years; the new network carries content from the Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSIN) and parent company Gow Media’s SBNation Radio.
In Saint John, NB, CINB (96.1) had been a 50-watt station, but it gets to go all the way to 2.5 kW/30 m, non-directional, providing wider reach for the Christian format it runs as “New Song 96.1.” And out on Cape Breton Island, Cape Breton University’s CJBU (107.3 Sydney NS) will transform from a 5-watt “developmental” license to a 50-watt/9.7 m campus station.