Area TV stations not adding any more 'subchannels' yet

CHAMPAIGN – Area TV stations say they aren't planning to add more digital "subchannels" soon, even though they have the flexibility to do so.

When TV stations began broadcasting digitally, they gained the ability to divide their signal across several video subchannels or "feeds."

WILL-TV in Urbana, for example, decided to continue airing PBS programming on its principal subchannel and add two other subchannels:

– WILL World, which features informational shows on world affairs, history and science.

– WILL Create, which has travel, cooking, gardening, home improvement and arts-and-crafts shows.

WCIA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Champaign, uses two subchannels. WCIA airs on the principal subchannel, and WCFN-TV, the MyNetworkTV affiliate in Springfield, appears on the other subchannel.

"We only have two (subchannels)," said Russ Hamilton, general manager of the two stations. "We could have three if we wanted to compress down the other digital (sub)channel where we carry WCFN."

WAND-TV in Decatur shows NBC programming on its principal subchannel and uses the other subchannel for 24-hour coverage of local weather.

"We do have a third, but we're not using it at this particular time," said Ron Pulera, WAND's general manager. "Our focus has been on the conversion (from analog) to digital. As we go into 2010, we'll look into expanding into the third digital tier."

Pulera said he feels WAND's "weather channel provides an important service to viewers, especially during severe weather."

Stations have a multitude of options in what they show on "subchannels." Some stations in other parts of the country use the additional channels to pick up networks that otherwise wouldn't be available there.

Others offer Spanish-language programming, sports programming or music videos.

Still others use programming services that air "classic" TV shows. Retro Television Network, for example, shows "Kojak" and "The Rockford Files." Another network, This TV, features movies from MGM and United Artists.

WICD-TV, the ABC affiliate in Champaign, uses just one digital channel now, but a couple of years ago, it aired a music video service on a secondary digital channel, said Tim Mathis, general manager for both WICD and its sister station, WICS in Springfield. It no longer airs the music videos.

"For us, the issue is, for it to be economically viable, we have to have spot (advertisement) insertion for it," Mathis said. Inserting ads into the programming requires a capital investment in equipment.

Mathis said there are lots of options for programming on secondary channels – including automotive channels, medical information channels and "evergreen" channels that run classic shows.

But "until market conditions allow for an increase in the inventory of advertising spots, we probably won't expand into that," he said.

Mathis said he wouldn't consider putting WICS on one of WICD's digital channels, since the only difference in programming on the two channels is their newscasts.

WICD is moving forward with mobile Internet, however. Mathis said people with phones that are Internet-compatible can get updated local news, sports and weather by sending the text message "news15" to the five-digit texting code of 43817.

"That's our expansion mode right now," Mathis said, adding that mobile Internet is "more viable and has more immediate impact" than adding digital subchannels.

WCCU, the Fox affiliate in Champaign-Urbana, uses digital subchannels to air standard-definition and high-definition signals of its station. Peter O'Brien, the general manager of WCCU and its sister station, WRSP in Springfield, was not available for comment. O'Brien is also general manager of WBUI-TV, the CW affiliate in Decatur.

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