A blues celebration kicks off the beginning of digital broadcasting

By Gus Bode

For everyone who watches television, things are about to change. In accordance with a federal mandate, WSIU/WUSI-TV on Sunday joined the ranks of broadcasting stations that have already switched from an analog to a digital signal.

“This is the biggest technical infrastructure change we’ve had in the past 40 years since we began broadcasting,” said Candice Isberner, acting director of SIUC’s broadcasting service.

Last night, WSIU, TV8/DT 40, and WUSI, TV16/DT19, celebrated the beginning of their digital broadcasting with a private reception followed by a viewing of the first program to run on the new digital signal:”Martin Scorsese’s The Blues,” which airs for seven consecutive nights. The theme line on the invitation read, “WSIU has got the blues, and it never felt so good.”

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Isberner said the blues theme was especially appropriate because of the double-edged sword the switchover wields. While the new technology will greatly improve WSIU’s quality, the equipment required is expensive. The change has already cost the station more than $6 million just to switch its broadcasting equipment. In order to produce its own programs, $9 million more will be needed.

“It’s a challenge only because there was no choice involved,” Isberner said.

Susie Phillips, president of the Friends Board of WSIU stations, said because the change involves a lot of money, it is a big deal for WSIU. The Friends Board has helped coordinate the fund raising. Though the cost is great, Phillips said the new digital programming would improve the station’s broadcasting quality.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Phillips said. “It’s been something that’s been coming for a long time, though it’s been difficult, too.”

Some people may wonder why the government required such an expensive project; the answer lies in bandwidth.

There is only a certain part of the radio frequency spectrum that humans can see and hear. Within that relatively small portion of the spectrum lie radio broadcasts, wireless and remote control devices and the analog-broadcasting signal. According to Robert Henderson, WSIU’s TV production manager, in many places, those frequencies have been used up.

This creates a problem when a new device that uses the same frequencies is created, he said. To alleviate the problem, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that all broadcasters must switch from an analog to a digital signal, since digital signals take up a relatively small part of the spectrum. As part of this mandate, stations will give back public analog broadcasting signals to the government, opening up the rest of the spectrum and rendering all non-digital television sets useless.

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Although the government originally set May 1, 2002, as the date for all private stations to switch to the digital signal, many stations could not comply in time due to financial difficulty. These stations, including WSIU, received an extension.

“We feel very fortunate to have found the funding to at least meet the mandate’s requirements,” Isberner said.

Each television station is required to switch over to all digital broadcasting by the time 80 percent of its viewers have digital televisions. According to Henderson, the viewers have not made as much progress switching over as the FCC would like, so it has considered setting a cutoff date for analog broadcasting.

An easy way to understand the difference between analog and digital, according to Mark Fischer, a Verizon training director, is to think of the difference between a wristwatch and a digital clock. The wristwatch changes by the second, while the digital clock presents a series of changes.

Right now, WSIU has many different options for digital broadcasting that, along with quality benefits, allow them to broadcast on multiple channels at once. WSIU/WUSI has taken the 19.2 megabits of the spectrum they were given and broken it up into four 4.8 megabit channels, Henderson said. On two channels, WSIU/WUSI will run a conversion of their analog signals. On the other two channels, “PBS You Learning” and “PBS Kids” will run. Another option they have discussed is running hi-definition programming, which requires the entire spectrum allotment during prime time on all four channels.

“This is so new to everybody,” Henderson said. “For us, it’s not a full digital conversion.”

In the future, WSIU plans to buy digital production equipment and connect to other public broadcasting stations through server-based program delivery as well as satellite.

Reporter Rachel Lindsay can be reached at [email protected]

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