The Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital will allow broadcasters to expand their channel offerings.

Share story

Broadcast television is getting ready for its new and improved close-up.

Digital technology is allowing broadcasters to divide their signals into multiple feeds and offer several channels where there had only been one. This ability is called multicasting.

“You could almost describe it as a free, over-the-air cable system,” said Frederick Thomas, chief executive of MHz Networks. His company hopes to expand its current selection of eight foreign-based channels to 10 by the Feb. 17 analog-to-digital transition deadline.

Options are as varied as 24-hour weather radar, children’s shows and health and wellness programming. Many of these channels are available through local cable providers as well.

“It’s just a way for stations to offer very niche-oriented programming for their audiences,” said Linda Yun of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Eric Eggleton, chief content officer for Maryland Public Television, said MPT plans to use the multiple-platform opportunity to target specific demographics. Its digital channel MPT Select, for example, will be re-launched sometime early next year as MPT2 and geared to baby boomers.

Broadcasters are also focusing on the young end of the spectrum. Kevin Harris, vice president and station manager at D.C.’s PBS station, said its WETA Kids line-up will offer different children’s shows to air opposite similar programming on the flagship channel’s morning block in addition to a mix of “old and new favorites” the rest of the day.

Even as they continue to tweak their offerings, station representatives said viewer feedback so far has been positive regarding digital channels. Only time will tell, however: The big test will come in six months after the February transition deadline. Stations anticipate that by that point, more viewers will have purchased converter boxes, which change over-the-air digital signals into analog ones that are compatible with older televisions.

To help people pay for the converter boxes, funding is available from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Each U.S. household is eligible to receive two $40 coupons. The deadline to request the vouchers is March 31, but NTIA spokesman Bart Forbes advised viewers not to wait until then to do so.

“People can take advantage of the additional channels and the clearer picture now,” he said.