Full-power CBS affiliate KWCH-TV has become the first station in the Wichita-Hutchinson, Kansas market to broadcast an ATSC Mobile handheld (MH) signal, but the prognosis for success is clearly to be determined, as there are very few receivers available and consumers for the most part, “have never heard of” mobile TV, despite numerous TV, radio and newspapers marketing campaigns sponsored by the broadcast industry.
As the flagship of independent group Sunflower Broadcasting, Inc., KWCH oversees satellite stations KBSH-TV in Hays, Kansas, KBSD-TV in Dodge City, Kansas, and KBSL-TV in Goodland, Kansas. Sunflower Broadcasting also operates KSCW-TV and KDCU-TV.
Like more than 150 other stations that are currently broadcasting an MH signal as part of their allotted spectrum, KWCH is hoping to “spark some interest,” in the words of chief engineer Les Bach.
After an initial launch on June 15, the station plans to do some more promotion and hand out portable receivers to let people experience it for themselves. “The problem is, there’s almost nothing available [in consumer receivers],” he said.
Back said he thinks small handheld devices, like the RCA DMT336R portable DTV, that the station plans to hand out for free to some consumers, work the best in his market (which consists of mostly flat terrain). The portable digital TV—with a 3.5-inch 4:3 (?) TFT LCD screen that displays 16:9 aspect ratio HD channels letterboxed or center cut—can receive “legacy ATSC” as well as an MH DTV signal. The device also includes an AM/FM radio and runs for two hours on a single battery charge.
“We’ve been driving around our market with it pretty much handles the area we expected it to cover,” Back said. “It has worked fairly well, although there are some problematic reception spots.”
As the basis for its mobile DTV service, the station is using a low-power (15 kW ERP) Harris transmitter, licensed to sister station KSCW-TV, and using roughly 2 Mbps for the mobile channel. The station typically uses this transmitter as a fill-in for the city’s downtown metropolitan area. KWCH uses a separate full-power Harris transmitter to broadcast CBS network shows and several local HD newscasts per day.
So, the station has a mobile signal on the air showing its “Always On Storm Team 12” weather programming. Now what?
“It’s nice to be first on the air, but there will be no demand from consumers if there are no devices available or nothing to watch,” Bach said. “Now, with our new mobile weather channel, there is something to watch. Our weather channel is very popular here in Kansas, for obvious reasons. So we’ll see how it goes.”
He said the station, which is a CBS affiliate, wants to rebroadcast CBS programming on the mobile channel someday, but it has not yet secured the right from he network to do so. They are also working with the CW network to put some of that programming on the mobile channel.
KWCH’s overall parent company (Schurz Communications) is part of the Mobile 500 group of stations trying to get mobile DTV service off the ground. The Mobile 500 group has been pushing member stations like KWCH to broadcast data for video-on-demand services on its mobile channel and have consumers purchase El Gato dongles for their portable devices (iPads, computers, etc.) to receive the ATSC MH signal. KWCH is doing none of that at this point.
“At the end of the day it’s the consumers’ choice if they want it or not,” Bach said, adding that they hope more devices will be available by this year’s holiday buying season. Getting on the air now allows the station to experiment before more people are actually watching.
“We’ve got the support of our parent company to get this off the ground,” he said. “There’s value for the consumer in mobile DTV, but there are also a number of hurdles that have to be overcome. We’re doing our part and trying to spark some interest.”
Mobile device owners can watch KWCH programming now via the station’s mobile app, but it requires a connection to the Internet, such as a Wi-Fi network or cellular data service.
“This is part of the broadcast industry’s process to create content and make it available on mobile devices. The consumer industry will follow behind,” said Joan Barrett, President/General Manager of Sunflower Broadcasting, Inc., in a statement to the public when the service launched. “Think of it like a web cam—you used to attach one to your computer, now everyone’s phone, laptop and tablet has it already installed. This will be the future for mobile television as well—the devices you buy will already have the antennas in them.”