Resurrected Pembina station to provide Winnipeg’s first over-the-air digital signal
October 15, 2009 4 Comments
(Update, Oct. 15: KNRR is reported to be back on the air. Digital TV owners in Winnipeg are already filing reception reports online.)
I’ve covered a lot of topics in this blog since it was first launched earlier this year, but the July 11 post on the uncertain future of KNRR-TV in Pembina, N.D. has stood out among them as being one of the most frequently visited and re-visited pages over the past three months.
KNRR might have been licenced to serve tiny Pembina and the surrounding farms and small towns of northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, but the station had actually been meant to serve Winnipeg, 100 kilometres to the north.
The business plan seemed to make sense. It was the brainchild of Fargo independent station KVRR, which had decided to put up a 1,400-foot tower near Pembina to relay the Fargo station’s programming into Winnipeg. If a sales office in Winnipeg could just sell enough commercial airtime to cover its own costs plus those of keeping the Pembina transmitter up and running — a fraction of the cost of running a full-service TV station — it could generate a tidy profit for the station’s owners.
All they had to do was to get the station on to Winnipeg’s cable systems, to which the vast majority of the city’s TV sets were connected.
That turned out to be easier said than done.
Winnipeg’s cable companies applied to the CRTC to add KNRR to their lineups shortly after the Pembina station went on the air in January 1986. However, the owners of Manitoba’s TV stations, who were already competing with each other plus WDAZ’s Winnipeg sales office, had no intention of allowing yet another competitor on to their turf.
The broadcasters lobbied the CRTC to keep KNRR off of Winnipeg’s cable systems. In October 1986, they got their wish.
For the next 23 years, KNRR would stay on the air nevertheless, delivering its parent station’s signal to northeastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and the dwindling number of Manitobans using rabbit-ears and rooftop aerials to receive TV signals.
During those years, KNRR was something of a money pit for its owners, generating neither profits nor cash flow. In 2008, however, the economic crisis in the U.S. and the $1-million price tag to convert KNRR over to digital by the June 2009 deadline made the station’s losses intolerable.
The station’s owners appealed to U.S. broadcast regulators to allow KNRR’s analog signal to stay on the air beyond the June 12 digital-switchover date, admitting that they were seriously considering shutting down KNRR, turning in its broadcasting licence and dismantling its tower.
When the appeal was denied, KNRR was left with no choice but to shut off its analog transmitter on June 12. It looked as though the station was dead.
On July 11, this blog suggested that Prairie Public TV give some consideration to buying KNRR while it still had its tower up.
As Winnipeg TV stations were then pleading with government regulators to relieve them of their local programming commitments, and KNRR’s owners seemed to welcome any opportunity to get the station off their hands, it appeared to present Prairie Public with the opportunity to strengthen its brand in southern Manitoba.
Half of Prairie Public’s audience and many of its donors lives north of the border, and four of the corporation’s 17 directors are from Winnipeg — including the chairman of the board — so why not use the Pembina frequency to shoot a signal across the border tailored to its Manitoba audience?
To my surprise, I then found out that KNRR’s owners had decided to keep the station on the air as a “public service”, informing U.S. broadcast regulators in early July that they intended to have the station back on the air with a digital signal by Oct. 18.
An employee of parent station KVRR indicated in an online discussion forum Monday that the date is real, writing that, “KNRR will also be lighting back up very very soon.”
When the station goes back on the air any day now, it will be the first over-the-air digital TV signal to cover Winnipeg and southern Manitoba.
According to TVFool.com, it should be possible to receive a passable signal in Winnipeg if you use a rooftop aerial or live in a high-rise above the ground clutter. Reception is expected to be good to excellent in Morden, Winkler, Altona, Morris and Carman.
The arrival of the first over-the-air digital signal should be good news for Manitobans who have watched with envy as broadcasters fired up digital transmitters in Vancouver and Toronto while putting off upgrades in Winnipeg until closer to the Aug. 31, 2011 deadline for all Canadian TV stations to go digital.
KNRR’s resurrection is also a good opportunity to reconsider the station’s exclusion from Winnipeg’s cable systems.
In 1986, Manitoba broadcasters objected to KNRR getting a slot on the cable dial out of fear that their Winnipeg-based sales reps would undercut the rates charged by Canadian TV stations and undermine the local programming those advertising dollars helped pay for.
Today, there’s little likelihood that KNRR would ever open a Winnipeg sales office. Just ask WDAZ what a worthwhile pursuit that was — they closed theirs long ago. KNRR would get a less-than-stellar place in the cable lineup to boot, taking over WUHF Fox Rochester’s channel 49.
Even then, whenever a popular Fox show is on a Canadian channel and a U.S. channel at the same time, CRTC rules require that the Canadian signal be carried on both cable channels — which would block out KNRR’s signal during several hours of prime time every week.
Without a Winnipeg sales office, there is no reason to believe that the Pembina station poses any significant threat to either the Winnipeg stations’ profitability or to their (ever decreasing) local programming commitments.
Now that the signal is almost back on the air, MTS and Shaw might as well seek to add it to their offerings.