The Download: Digital TV Switch a Boon for One Local Station

By Kim Hart
Monday, June 22, 2009

The switch to digital TV has caused static and headaches for thousands of viewers in the Washington region. But for one local station, the transition has been something of a revival.

MHz Networks, based in Falls Church, has carved out a niche for international programming over the past 15 years, showing Russian newscasts, Nigerian documentaries and Italian mysteries, to name a few of its offerings. To build its digital antenna and boost the signal's power, MHz shut off analog to its two channels in September -- the first station in the country to do so -- leaving many viewers who were not yet equipped to receive digital signals believing it had simply disappeared. But on June 12, when viewers hooked up converter boxes and scanned for digital stations, MHz came through at full strength.

"We got calls from people all over saying, 'You're back!' " said chief executive Frederick Thomas, who started working at the public television station 15 years ago as a programming manager.

MHz Networks is owned by Richmond-based Commonwealth Public Broadcasting and, through affiliate agreements with broadcasters and cable and satellite companies, reaches 27 million households across the country.

But viewers in the Washington region, and some in Baltimore, now get to watch 10 channels over the air free of charge. (The digital transition gave the network eight extra channels to broadcast additional foreign content.)

Five channels, including programs from the Middle East, China and Japan, are aired from a 698-foot tower in Falls Church, while the remaining five channels with programs from Vietnam, France and South Africa are aired from a tower in Prince William County. (Viewers have to point their antennas in that direction to receive the channels.)

When Thomas arrived at the station in 1993, he said it was airing a hodgepodge of programs on a random schedule. He saw the opportunity to cater to the growing diversity of Washington and, starting with the showing of 10 foreign films, slowly acquired the rights to air programs from foreign news services. He said that with an eye on numbers from the 1990 Census, he tried to air content that would appeal to the largest ethnic groups in the region.

"I knew there was this international underbelly to the nation's capital," he said.

Now that MHz has mastered digital broadcasts, it's branching into new territories. Starting next month, it will begin airing mobile video broadcasts as part of a larger pilot project by the Open Mobile Video Coalition, which will also provide video for the major network affiliates in the area, Ion Media and Howard University's public television station. Mobile video, Thomas said, takes advantage of a "big, open-air broadband pipe -- it's wicked cool."

But there's a problem: Handsets capable of receiving the new mobile video broadcasts aren't yet available to consumers. Broadcasters are testing the service so it will be ready when devices become available next year.

Ion Media, which is taking part in the mobile video trials and started airing its mobile content recently, said it has also benefited from the digital transition.

The network has gained 2.4 million more viewers in the Washington region, bringing its projected audience to nearly 7 million, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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