Ailing KNRR could allow Prairie Public to fill Manitoba’s local programming void

(Originally posted July 11, 2009; updated May 8, 2012) 

Televisions stations are no longer the huge profit makers that they used to be, and many of them have cut back on local programming over the years to help make ends meets. They have also lost their connection to the community over the years as they dropped their local identities in order to create homogeneous national brands. Goodbye CKY, CKND and 13 MTN; hello CTV, Global and Citytv.

Another station that has fallen on tough times is KNRR. That might sound familiar to some Winnipeggers, or might not, given that the Winnipeg Free Press stopped carrying their listings some time ago.

KNRR is a satellite station in Pembina with no local programming of its own that was originally intended to relay Fargo Fox affiliate KVRR into Winnipeg. But when it was blocked from Canadian cable systems by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 1986, because of objections from Manitoba broadcasters to the competition it would create, it only ended up reaching the dwindling number of Manitobans with neither cable nor satellite.

KNRR station ident, 1987

Here is what the Red River Broadcast Company had to say about the station in an April 16, 2009 filing to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regarding KNRR’s inability to meet the mandatory deadline for all U.S. TV stations to switch over to digital broadcasting:

Red River Broadcast Co., LLC (‘Red River’) has operated KNRR for many years. As previously reported to the Commission, throughout this time, the station has not been profitable in terms of actual revenues or cashflow. These circumstances have forced Red River in the past to consider surrenduring its licence for KNRR. Due to the economic downturn and the large capital costs that would be required for KNRR to construct digital facilities, Red River must again consider whether to surrender KNRR’s licence.

Though Red River noted that they had not yet reached “a final decision regarding KNRR’s financial viability,” they did re-launch the station in October, 2009 after four months off the air — but with such a weak signal that indoor reception is difficult anywhere north of Morris, Manitoba, and virtually impossible in Winnipeg.

This might create a unique opportunity for Prairie Public Television. Prairie Public has long been a familiar name to Winnipeggers. It’s been on Channel 3 on Winnipeg’s cable systems since 1975, and thousands of young Winnipeggers grew up on the North Dakota PBS affiliate’s daily diet of Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

In fact, the station is so closely tied to Winnipeg that four city residents (as of Jan. 2012) sit on the Fargo-based station’s Board of Directors, and Canadian viewers have long been a major source of funding during the station’s regular pledge drives. In return, Prairie Public had made serving Manitoba almost as much a part of its mandate as serving North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Purchasing KNRR — or convincing Red River to donate the station in return for a tax receipt — could help Prairie Public strengthen its Manitoba presence and fill a void in northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, areas far from Prairie Public’s Grand Forks/Crookston and Devils Lake transmitters.

Such a move has a precedent: In 1978, the owners of Missouri CBS affiliate KMOS-TV wanted to offload the unprofitable station without creating an opening for a competitor. So, they donated the station to Central Missouri State University, which turned KMOS into a non-commercial PBS affiliate.

Though KNRR’s 4,440-watt Channel 12 signal doesn’t reach Winnipeg, an upgrade to a 75,000-watt system would push an indoor-quality signal into the fast-growing Morden/Winkler area of southern Manitoba as well as into Pembina County, N.D. and Kittson County, Minn., both located too far from Prairie Public’s existing transmitters to be adequately served.

A 75,000-watt signal should also be strong enough to reach the Shaw Cable head-end in southwest Winnipeg with a signal their engineers can work with.

An upgrade to a UHF channel — channel 20 should be acceptable based on existing rules governing minimum distances between TV stations sharing the same channel — could be considered after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission lifts its freeze on new channel allotments.

Pros and Cons of  Prairie Public making a dash for the border

Pros

  • They could probably purchase KNRR from Red River for a very reasonable price, or ask for it as a donation in return for a tax receipt. It’s unlikely that anyone else will be interested in the station.
  • It would be far less expensive to use an existing tower and transmission site than to start a new one up from scratch
  • It could allow Prairie Public to strengthen its brand presence in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba (where almost half of its viewers live) by using the Pembina station to create a specialized Manitoba feed on a subchannel.
  • They have already done some local programming about Manitoba, which has been shown state-wide in North Dakota, even though it’s not entirely relevant to that audience. By keeping Manitoba-specific programs restricted to the Pembina feed, they can use these time slots to offer more relevant programming to their U.S. audience.
  • They could justify the purchase to the FCC by saying that broadcasting from Pembina will allow their signal to reach areas of northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota where their existing Devils Lake and Crookston/Grand Forks signals get limited reception.
  • They could potentially create local Winnipeg programming without going to the trouble and expense of building a second set of studios by renting existing production facilities in the city. They could also purchase some Canadian programming from Ontario public TV broadcaster TVO, which is not available in Manitoba.
  • There is no direct competition in Manitoba. We don’t have a public broadcaster here, and the local TV stations are all but happy to get out of local programming. Prairie Public, being a viewer-supported station, has taken the opposite view: that local programming is an important way of building up audience loyalty.
  • Since Prairie Public is already on Winnipeg’s cable systems, and there is no direct competition in Winnipeg, there would be few (if any) bureaucratic headaches of the type that made KNRR unviable.
  • Shaw and other Manitoba cable providers reportedly receive WDAZ and Prairie Public through an intercity microwave relay link from the U.S. It is possible that Shaw’s head office in Calgary might eventually want to shut down this link in favour of more economical satellite feeds from the Minneapolis/St. Paul ABC and PBS affiliates. An over-the-air presence in Winnipeg, even with a signal that can only be picked up with outdoor antennas in Winnipeg, could save Prairie Public from the financial distress that losing its Canadian audience would cause.

Cons

  • It would cost money (always an issue for a non-profit broadcaster)
  • There might be cheaper ways of creating a Manitoba-oriented feed that don’t involve maintaining yet another transmitter, such as an Internet feed.
  • An over-the-air digital feed from Pembina would reach a limited audience in its own right, as most of Prairie Public’s viewers get the station on cable. A Pembina tower would be more of an added convenience to cable systems and mobile/handheld users than anything.
     
  • KNRR’s tower was never tall enough to do an adequate job of reaching Winnipeg. An extra 100 metres (328 feet) would have improved their Winnipeg coverage significantly.

Expected coverage area if Prairie Public were to take over and upgrade Channel 12 Pembina, N.D. from 4.44 kW to 75 kW using KNRR-DT’s existing directional antenna. Source: lrcov.crc.ca


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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

5 Responses to Ailing KNRR could allow Prairie Public to fill Manitoba’s local programming void

  1. Harry says:

    I hope they go through with this. A lot of money could be made until 2011 since the Winnipeg market is waking up to HD and people are starving for it. The Canadian broadcasters will probably procrastinate until 2011 before they switch.

    A few adds in the paper and suggestions on type of antennae would be all that’s required to get a frenzy on antennae sales going.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    You’re in luck: KNRR has notified the FCC that it plans to be back on the air by Oct. 18

    https://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/prod/cdbs/forms/prod/getattachment_exh.cgi?exhibit_id=781143&formid=337&q_num=5000

    I remember the station did a fair bit of advertising in Winnipeg in 1986 to try to encourage people to buy antennas and/or get the station carried on cable over the Winnipeg broadcasters’ objections, but to no avail. But, if laptops capable of picking up over-the-air HDTV signals like Dell’s Studio 17 become popular, KNRR might be able to broaden its Winnipeg audience just a little bit.

  3. Harry says:

    I really don’t understand the broadcasters ? Now would be the time to go HD! They could pick up more advertising $$$ because they would deliver a better product than cable or satelite. As far as not allowing KNRR to transmit here is also ludicrous. We don’t need protectionism — we need competition! If the CRTC does it’s job, they would protect the public that pays their wages from these welfare bums.

    I did buy one of those antennas. The signal didn’t come in to good but was watchable. (Could have been the location of my house.)

    I wonder if KNRR could have a local transmitter in Canada and throw in a few Canadian content like weather and local news to make it more appealing to the CRTC? There is enough signal space with digital transmission. If it locates in i.e Morden it could also claim supporting the rural communities. Oh well I guess we have to wait and see if the signal will be strong enough to reach Winnipeg.

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    KNRR operates on a U.S. frequency under a U.S. broadcasting licence, so putting up a tower on Canadian soil is out of the question.

    However, someone did mention on a discussion forum that KNRR’s parent company considered doing local programming out of Winnipeg when the station first started operations in 1986 in order to get on the CRTC’s good side. (I believe KVOS Bellingham-Vancouver had done this as well.)

    Had they gotten on the air just a year earlier, the cable companies would not have needed permission to carry KNRR. They were trapped by a rule that required cable companies to seek CRTC approval to carry any new U.S. stations that started broadcasting after Jan. 1, 1985. Since KNRR had been first licenced in 1979 (as KWBA-TV, which was then supposed to be a sister station of Fargo CBS affiliate KXJB), the six-year-and-a-bit delay was fatal to the station’s profitability.

    I noticed that the station’s owners informed the FCC that they plan to keep the station on the air as a “public service”. It seems to me that there’s more than meets the eye here. I seriously doubt that they hold out hope of becoming a competitor in the Winnipeg marketplace: even with cable carriage, they’d probably be up on whatever channel WUHF/Fox Rochester is on now — forty-something? — with a similarly small audience. (And there’s no reason why KNRR shouldn’t get cable carriage. WDAZ, in spite of an excellent location on the cable dial, has long since closed its Winnipeg sales office, so it’s unlikely that KNRR would open one now.)

    My guess is that the Pembina station has been given a new lease on life because of: a.) tax benefits to the parent company, or, b.) the possibility of selling the station.

    Links you might be interested in:

    http://theviewfromseven.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/tv-stations-no-longer-a-licence-to-print-money/

    http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=391243&page=49

  5. Harry says:

    KNRR could be used as as a tax write down but I think the value is more in transmitting rights for a set frequency that could be sold. That frequency is like property to them and they would loose it if they shut down or don’t upgrade. Needless to say if that is the only thing that keeps them operating then they will not care in the quality they deliver to their customers. I still think that if they could locate near a transmitter or in line with a Canadian transmitter, they could sell advertising space to Winnipeg customers. A lot of us go to Grand Forks or Fargo for a break! Cable charges extra for HD and the quality is not as good as OTA so . . . . . there is an opportunity for any station to get advertising $$ without cable coverage.

    IMO the only thing that is holding the broadcasters back from greater profitability is their location of transmitting towers. To use OA TV, you have to go by direction and that requires more antennas or a motor for outside installations. Too bad they can’t all locate within a square mile. They could also form a transmission co-op and reduce the numbers of antenna towers. Fiber optic could link them. That would realy put a crimp into cable and Sat. TV.

    Wish I had the $$$$ to build that kind of facility and rent out transmission space to the stations!

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