Pitkin County wants to know how many residents still use rabbit ears on their TVs | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County wants to know how many residents still use rabbit ears on their TVs

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Pitkin County wants to know how many TV viewers are still adjusting rabbit ears to pick up television reception before determining the fate of its TV translator service.

If the system, which rebroadcasts television and FM radio signals into the nooks and crannies of the upper valley, is costing a lot of money to serve a handful of TV viewers, the television piece of the system may not be worth continuing, according to Brian Pettet, county public works director.

That decision, he stressed, will be up to the Board of County Commissioners.

To help commissioners in their deliberations, the county will make a concerted effort to tally the number of residents who tune into TV stations via the translators, FM/TV administrator Terri Newland told the board Tuesday.

Beginning in January, viewers who depend on the system for reception will see a message scrolling across the bottom of their TV screens, directing them to call a phone number. The message will appear for a week on each of the four stations that are broadcast over the system, NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS, Newland said.

“We’re going to try to get a realistic idea of how many people we serve,” she said.

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Newland said she also intends to calculate the cost per user for the system.

When county voters first approved a county-run translator system to rebroadcast television and FM radio signals, along with a dedicated property tax to fund it, it was the only way many residents could receive TV reception, given the area’s mountainous terrain. That was 1979.

Now, cable television and satellite dishes have eliminated the need for the translator system for many viewers, Pettet suspects.

“I think it’s really important for the people who are using it, but how many people are using it?” he said.

If it’s a handful of viewers, the county might come out ahead financially by providing them with another option, mused Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

“If we could get rid of the TV service and buy 100 satellite dishes ?,” he said.

“I don’t think the county’s in the position of providing entertainment,” said Commissioner Dorothea Farris.

It’s the system’s ability to transmit information that is the main purpose for its existence, she contended.

The county has already learned to live without about a third of its TV translators. It shut down 19 of 65 translators in 2000 after discovering they were unlicensed. License applications still await Federal Communication Commission action, Newland said.

Even if the TV translators are abandoned, the county should pursue the licenses, Pettet added.

“The licenses are valuable in their own right,” he said.

While the county ponders the future of its TV translators, commissioners indicated Tuesday they may seek voter approval next November to expand the operation into other areas of service.

Wireless Internet service could be accommodated on the system, and cell-phone towers could be erected on some translator tower sites, according to Newland.

“There has been a lot of interest in our sites, both from public broadcasters and private entities,” she said. “I think it would be prudent for us to look into that.”

The county’s translators are spread over eight mountaintops from one end of the Roaring Fork Valley to the other. Sharing use of its sites with private entities could generate revenue for the county, Newland said.

There is also demand for additional FM radio service, but there is little the county can do to expand in that area, even if it gives up the TV system, she added.

“The demand for FM is exceeding the space on our system. I get calls from broadcasters all the time,” Newland said. “Our spectrum in this valley is pretty full.”

The 2003 budget for the county’s translator system totals about $516,000.