Friday, April 11, 2003

WCET expands to four digital cable channels


By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Welcome to a new era of television. Welcome to the Digital Age, when one TV station becomes four or more.

WCET-TV inaugurates its full-power digital service today, which allows the station to simultaneously air its regular programming, plus three other 24-hour services - a children's channel (WCET Kids), an adult learning service (WCET YOU) and a combination teacher development/alternative PBS programming channel (WCET Plus).

How can Time Warner's 140,000 digital cable customers find out what's on WCET's four stations? There's an on-screen guide or go to Web site Here's tonight's prime-time lineup:

WCET-TV (Channel 13, or digital Channel 949): Nightly Business Report (7 p.m.); McLaughlin Group (7:30); Washington Week (8); Wall $treet Week (8:30); Now with Bill Moyers (9); Adam's Rib (10).

WCET Kids (Channel 950): Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (7 p.m.); Clifford the Big Red Dog (7:30); Arthur (8); Dragon Tales (8:30); Caillou (9); Barney & Friends (9:30); Jay Jay the Jet Plane (10); Teletubbies (10:30).

WCET YOU (Channel 951): Policywatch with Doug Besharov (7 p.m.); Moneywise with Kelvin Boston (7:30); Think Tank with Ben Wattenburg (8); Our Genes, Our Choices (8:30); Think Tank with Ben Wattenburg (9:30); To the Contrary (10); Julia Child: Cooking with Master Chefs (10:30).

WCET Plus (Channel 952): NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (7 p.m.); Washington Week (8); Wall $treet Week (8:30); Now with Bill Moyers (9); Frontline (10).

Thanks to Time Warner Cable, homes with digital cable will be able to see the new channels today on Channel 950 (WCET Kids), Channel 951 (WCET YOU), and Channel 952 (WCET Plus), in addition to the "regular" WCET-TV on Time Warner Channel 13 and digital cable Channel 949.

The new "multicasting" channels will be available to more than 140,000 Tristate cable homes - instead of just the 5,000-8,000 that have purchased expensive digital or high-definition TVs. WCET will broadcast in HDTV about 15 percent of the time, including 7-11 p.m. Tuesdays, until more programming is available.

"We can make the claim that our digital service is available to more households than any other market," says Susan Howarth, WCET-TV president and CEO.

WCET-TV also will make history by being able to keep the WCET Kids channel on the air full-time. "No matter what, PBS Kids will always be on, even when we're in high definition," says Jack Dominic, Channel 48 executive vice president and chief operating officer.

So parents with a sick child in middle of the night - or any hour of the day - will have a safe, commercial-free TV haven.

Until recently, it was believed that stations had to choose between simulcasting four standard definition channels or one HDTV broadcast. Harris Broadcast Communications engineers from Deerfield Township have figured out how to do two standard definition channels on cable along with HDTV, Dominic.

"No one else is doing what WCET-TV will do - high definition and two standard channels at once," says Bruce Allan, Harris Broadcast Communications president and general manager.

WCET-TV, the nation's first licensed public TV station, will be Ohio's first public TV station to multicast because Cincinnati residents donated $7.6 million to the digital conversion capital campaign in 1998-2000.

However, the station is the second digital multicaster serving Cincinnati. Kentucky Educational Television's WCVN-TV began digital transmissions last fall, but the KET multicast channels aren't carried by Northern Kentucky cable systems.

Howarth, a national PBS board member, says that's a common complaint from PBS station managers and many commercial TV stations.

"Stations are bemoaning the fact they've invested all this money into digital equipment, and their cable companies aren't interested in carrying it," she says. Being on cable "is really the break-through. We're actually providing programming the people can watch. We're very excited about that."

Unlike other cable companies, Time Warner has aggressively sought local, digital and HDTV programming. Time Warner here has agreements to carry HDTV and multicast channels from WKRC-TV, WCPO-TV and WLWT-TV.

For us, "it is an opportunity to get people used to getting HD programming through cable, and we have the programming," says Virgil Reed, Cincinnati Time Warner Cable president.

With the multiple digital channels, WCET-TV can try to be all things to all people.

"Up to now, we've always been forced to make choices. We couldn't run Sesame Street at night, or run our popular weekend how-to shows on weekdays," Howarth says. "Now we'll be able to provide more of the programs that our viewers like. To have some how-to shows during the day, or a night of British comedy, would seem to make sense," Howarth says.

The additional channel capacity could be used to air local documentaries, videotaped classes for college credit or programs for a variety of age groups.

"While we have Lawrence Welk on one channel, we could be engaging a young audience with another channel. The flexibility is going to be so much greater," says Colleen Harris, marketing director.

Just two weeks ago, Dominic learned that the station could air two standard definition digital channels on cable, along with a HDTV program.

"No one else yet, outside of a lab, has been able to keep high-definition and have two standard definition channels," Dominic says. "What Harris (Broadcast Communications) is learning here, they'll be able to use at stations across the country."

"It's really pioneering," Howarth says. "We're inventing it as we go along."

Welcome to the digital TV age. It will be fun to watch.


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