County to channel surf for local TV watchers |

County to channel surf for local TV watchers

Janet Urquhart

Pitkin County will be tuning in the public this month to find out what, if anything, it should do with its crippled television translator system.

In a series of four meetings, county staffers will be looking for input on what TV channels viewers would most like to see and whether the county should go to the expense of restoring TV reception at all.

The county shut down 19 translators last July after discovering they were not licensed with the Federal Communications Commission. The move wiped out television reception, at least on some channels, for viewers who do not have cable TV or a satellite dish.

The county has applied with the FCC to license the translators, but it could be well into 2001 before reception is restored, if the licenses are granted.

“There never was any certainty with the FCC,” said Stan Berryman, the county’s director of public works.

The translator system rebroadcasts television and FM radio signals off mountaintops, facilitating reception in the county’s mountainous terrain.

With the translator shutdown, viewers lost reception of a combination of networks, depending on where they live. The system rebroadcasts ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and the WB. Most viewers lost two of those networks; some lost three, according to Berryman. The county has no way of knowing exactly how many residents were affected.

The county still has the ability to bring in three TV stations and could shuffle signals if, for example, most viewers would prefer to tune in PBS rather than CBS, Berryman said. Or, the county could drop one of the stations it has been rebroadcasting and provide something else, like the Fox network.

But the county also wants to know if the public feels it’s important to maintain the system at all, Berryman said.

“This is the time to really look at that in light of all the technology out there,” he said. Many viewers rely on cable TV or a satellite dish and are unaffected by the translator shutdown.

“I think we’re going to look at the whole gamut, from reconfiguring the existing system to adding to the system to get it back up to five channels to eliminating the system altogether,” he said.

Restoring the system will require the county to switch from VHF to UHF frequencies, which will mean about $100,000 to $150,000 in new equipment, according to Berryman. The system had used only the VHF band, but when the county applied for licenses on those frequencies, it found the VHF band already filled up, he said.

“That’s doable within our budget, it’s just that, is that a wise expenditure of our mill levy?” Berryman said.

The cost of obtaining Denver stations – about $45,000 annually – will also be up for discussion. Before the shutdown, the county received Denver feeds for all but CBS; it picked up the Grand Junction affiliate for CBS. The network programming is unaffected, but viewers would watch Grand Junction news rather than Denver news if the county switches to the Western Slope affiliates.

The county would receive feeds from Grand Junction for free, according to Berryman. “They would love to have their programming up here,” he said.

“It’s all a balancing task,” Berryman added. “These meetings are going to be fairly complex, but we’re hoping we can get some direction from the public.”

The meetings will begin with a session on Jan. 9 at the Pie Plate Caf in Redstone, followed by a gathering at the Thomasville Firehouse on Jan. 11, a meeting at Basalt Town Hall on Jan. 15, and a discussion in the first-floor meeting room at the county courthouse plaza in Aspen on Jan. 18. All of the meetings will begin at 7 p.m.

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