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Published November 09 2010

Despite some complaints, DirecTV has no immediate plans to offer high-definition local channels

DirecTV customers in western North Dakota cities such as Bismarck, Dickinson and Minot can watch their local channels in high definition.

So can viewers in Anchorage, Alaska.

But Fargo customers are still waiting – and growing increasingly impatient – for their HD “locals” to come beaming to their DirecTV satellite dishes.

Some had hoped a new DirecTV satellite launched in December would bring the HD locals to Fargo, but it hasn’t happened.

Todd Reisenauer is among those frustrated with the lack of service.

When he visits his dad in Dickinson, he’s able to watch the Minnesota Vikings on Fox in high definition through DirecTV.

But at his home in Fargo, he needs an antenna to capture the over-the-air HD broadcast signal if he wants to watch the purple-and-gold with the same quality picture. And even then, the picture cuts out for a few seconds if there’s too much activity on the screen, he said.

“That’s pretty annoying,” he said.

“I don’t understand why Fargo and this area doesn’t have it, but the rural area out in western North Dakota does,” he added.

DirecTV’s public relations director, Robert Mercer, said the company’s current goal is to provide local channels to as many of its customers as possible, focusing on launching markets that don’t yet have local channels – either HD or standard definition.

“We have no plans at the present time to launch Fargo,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Forum. “Although we do understand how important HD local channels are to our customers’ viewing experience, we have a business obligation to make the most efficient use of our budget and bandwidth as we rollout local channels to our customers.

“In the meantime, we apologize to those customers who may have received misinformation about our launch plans.”

Higher rank, no service

According to DirectTV’s website, it currently offers local HD channels in 153 markets (though an accompanying list showed 155 markets), a number of which are smaller than the Fargo-Valley City market.

The Nielsen Co. ranks each designated market area, or DMA, by the number of TV homes in a given market area.

With 240,330 TV homes, the Fargo-Valley City DMA ranks 121st on the 2009-2010 list, ahead of Minot-Bismarck-Dickinson (158th with 136,540 homes) and Anchorage (150th with 150,620 homes).

The DirecTV website has a list of 24 “Upcoming HD local market launches.” It includes Binghamton, N.Y. (157th), Billings, Mont. (169th) and Eureka, Calif. (195th), but not the Fargo-Valley City market.

A new DirecTV satellite, known as DirecTV 12, was launched into orbit Dec. 28 and became operational this past May. DirecTV said the satellite would boost its HD capacity by 50 percent to more than 200 HD channels, expand movie choices and increase the number of local HD markets served by DirecTV. But it’s unclear whether the Fargo market will benefit from it.

The lack of HD locals has been a thorny issue for local stations for a while.

In an online chat in September 2009, Charley Johnson, then general manager of local NBC and CBS affiliates KVLY and KXJB, explained things to viewers complaining about the lack of HD locals – including one who wrote, “I find it incredibly annoying that I am unable to watch Sunday Night Football in HD.”

“When and if our local channels are offered in HD is solely up to DirecTV,” Johnson wrote. “Both the KXJB and KVLY contracts with DirecTV allow the satellite company to begin offering our HD signals whenever it’s ready, with no further negotiations or additional cost.

“DirecTV shares its collection point in Fargo with DISH, which already offers all the Fargo locals in HD, so we know they’re receiving the signal in high definition,” Johnson continued. “Each of the (satellite) companies follows its own business instincts in deciding which markets to roll out in HD, so it’s strictly a question of where DirecTV puts our market on the list. We all hope it’s sooner, rather than later, and that question should be directed to them.”

The number of local DirecTV subscribers wasn’t immediately available, but Johnson said during negotiations with DirecTV in January 2009 that it had 25,000 to 30,000 viewers in the area.

Mark Prather, general manager of WDAY-TV, which, like The Forum, is owned by Forum Communications Co., said the station hasn’t had any contact from DirecTV about HD in at least a year.

“We get people calling quite often wanting to know why it’s not there, and it is there. It’s just that they have chosen not to put the Fargo market on the HD (lineup),” he said.

Competitors offer locals

DirecTV’s main satellite service competitor, Dish Network, has offered local channels in high definition to the Fargo market since April 2009, said Francie Bauer, corporate communications manager.

Providing an HD channel locally is “much more complex” than doing so nationally, because the company must ensure the signal is beaming only to customers in that particular market area, she said.

“There are a lot of factors involved, but at a very high level, it requires additional equipment, both at our uplink center and in the market, carriage deals with the local affiliates, and most importantly, extra bandwidth,” Bauer stated in an e-mail.

Fargo cable TV provider CableOne has offered local HD channels for at least two years, General Manager Scott Geston said.

It required a lot of equipment and coordination, because HD signals require so much more bandwidth than normal digital signals, Geston said. An analog channel can carry 10 to 15 digital signals but typically only three HD signals.

“So, it takes a lot of planning and preparation,” he said. “If your shelves are already filled with analog and digital signals, you’ve got to find out how you can squeeze those broader-spectrum networks into your lineup.”

Midcontinent Communications also offers local HD channels in the metro area.

CableOne has found the local HD channels to be a selling point, Geston said.

“Most of the TVs now are digital, high-definition compatible,” he said. “So, when people buy those, they want to see the product. They want to see the clear, crisper picture, larger screen, and get the full use out of their new television.”

Fargo not in DirecTV’s plans for high-def local channels

According to its website, DirecTV currently offers local broadcast channels in 170 markets, with 153 markets in HD. Below are some of DirecTV’s current HD local markets and some markets slated for local HD launches, along with their 2009-2010 designated market area (DMA) ratings by The Nielson Co.:

Current HD local markets, DMA ranking

New York, N.Y., 1

Minneapolis-St. Paul, 15

Omaha, Neb., 76

Madison, Wis., 85

Sioux Falls-Mitchell, S.D., 113

Fargo-Valley City, N.D. (not on either list), 121

Lubbock, Texas, 143

Anchorage, Alaska, 150

Minot-Bismarck-Dickinson, N.D., 158

Missoula, Mont., 166

Upcoming HD local market launches*

Billings, Mont. (2011), 169

Rapid City, S.D. (2011), 174

Great Falls, Mont. (2011), 192

Eureka, Calif. (2011), 195

St. Joseph, Mo. (2011), 201

*Subject to change, the website states

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528