Over-the-air station shake-up

Posted 11/29/11

FOX programming carried by Billings’ KHMT will go off the air after Dec. 31, as station managers have determined they cannot afford to upgrade their equipment in Park County to meet new federal rules. Meanwhile, the Billings CBS affiliate, KTVQ, …

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Over-the-air station shake-up


FOX antenna signal signs off Jan. 1, new CW signal signing on

By the end of the year, Park County folks watching over-the-air television via antenna will have a somewhat different lineup of channels.

FOX programming carried by Billings’ KHMT will go off the air after Dec. 31, as station managers have determined they cannot afford to upgrade their equipment in Park County to meet new federal rules. Meanwhile, the Billings CBS affiliate, KTVQ, will be switching to an improved digital signal — and they’ll add a subchannel carrying CW network programming.

The changes are the result of Federal Communications Commission regulations issued in July. They require all over-the-air television signals above channel 51 to move to a lower channel by Jan. 1. The chunk of broadcast spectrum from channel 52 and up is being made available for other uses, including cellular telephone signals.

“We’ve seen this coming,” said Park County Chief Information Officer Mike Conners at the time the FCC issued the new regulations. “We just didn’t know they were going to jump on it and only give us a few months to figure it out,”

The stations primarily affected in Park County are KHMT, KTVQ, and KULR, which is the Billings NBC affiliate.

KTVQ and KULR have decided to lower their too-high channels in Park County, but KHMT (FOX) will not.

“It’s too cost prohibitive,” said Sandra Zoldowski, general manager of KHMT in Billings. “I wish I could have come through, but for a small station, it wasn’t doable at the time.”

She wouldn’t say exactly how expensive it would be, but she said getting their translators up to speed would run in five figures.

FOX will remain available through other means such as satellite dishes and cable companies, Zoldowski noted.

KHMT is jointly operated with KSVI TV, a Billings ABC affiliate taken off the air in Park County about two years ago because of other complications with federal translator regulations.

Mark Huller, director of engineering for KULR’s owner, Max Media of Montana, said the primary reason his company decided to keep broadcasting in Park County is because it’s one of KULR’s largest markets.

“It’s huge for us, keeping service down there,” Huller said.

John Hurley, KTVQ’s general manager, said providing local news and the best possible signal always has been an important part of the station’s mission. In Park County, where an estimated 18 percent of KTVQ’s viewers watch an over-the-air signal, Hurley said there are a large number of antenna viewers who don’t have other choices, “so that’s what makes it even more important.”

The Park County government installed and maintained the translators beaming the broadcast television signals across the county over the last 30 years, but county commissioners decided in late 2009 that they no longer wanted the expense. They cited concern about spending taxpayer dollars on providing TV to a relatively small number of people. They also didn’t want the combined replacement costs the stations are now facing individually.

Part of the expense is that the Billings stations’ over-the-air signals are first broadcast from the Spring Creek site outside Meeteetse — and all of those channels are above 51 and must be lowered.

When KULR switches to a lower channel in Meeteetse in the coming month, they’ll upgrade to a digital signal there, Huller said. Since the Powell/Cody signal doesn’t have to be upgraded by the end of the year, and KULR already has its hands full dealing with translators that must be changed, the station will stand pat with its analog signal here for now, Huller said. However, KULR intends to go digital in the Powell/Cody area in the future, he said.

KTVQ’s CBS signal will be upgraded to a high-definition digital signal in the Meeteetse and Powell/Cody areas. The switch-over is planned for mid-December, dependent on weather. The digital CW subchannel will begin in standard definition, but Hurley said he hopes the network will begin providing a high-definition signal to KTVQ sometime next year.

To pick up a digital over-the-air signal, viewers need an antenna and either a TV with a digital tuner (most TV’s made since 2006 have them) or a digital-to-analog converter box.

What KTVQ does at the six over-the-air translator sites in more rural Park County — such as those serving Clark, the Wood River area south of Meeteetse and Crandall — will depend on how far the new digital signals can travel and how many people are actually watching the remote sites, Hurley said; similar decisions will likely need to be made by KULR at some point, said Huller.

By driving around Park County towns or in the country, TV antennas can be spotted, but obtaining an exact antenna count would be impractical.

“There is just no way to tell,” said Conners, who has overseen the translators for the county. In an unscientific 2009 county survey, some 300 Park County households indicated they watch over-the-air TV provided by the translators.

FOX carries a lot of sports. “I’m guessing when FOX goes down my phone is going to ring off the hook again,” Conners said.

Zoldowski said she was disappointed FOX couldn’t serve antenna users in Park County.

“Could it change in the future?” Zoldowski asked. “Absolutely. Would I like it to change? Absolutely.”

All over-the-air stations — whether below channel 52 or not — must switch to a digital format by September 2015.

Wyoming PBS — KCWC — has been the only station broadcasting a digital signal in Park County to date.