One TV translator gone, three remain

Pagosa area TV viewers who still get their channel choices the old-fashioned way — over the air — recently found they had one less option when KOAT, the ABC affiliate out of Albuquerque (Channel 7 VHF, 58 UHF), was dropped from the local translator.

For Pagosa area residents who opt for free, antennae-reliant TV reception, KOAT’s demise whittles local viewing choices down to three channels: CBS affiliate KRQE (KGGM), Channel 13 VHF or 43 UHF; NBC affiliate KOBF, Channel 12 VHF and 40 UHF; and Fox affiliate KASA, Channel 2 VHF and 48 UHF.

Not all stations are available to all viewers. Geographical location, translator signal strength, and strength of an individual TV receiver, may prevent some viewers from receiving all channels.

The use of translators for broadcasting remote TV signals has a long history in Pagosa Country but with subscription services such as cable and satellite providers offering exponentially more programming options, picking up a signal with “rabbit ears” may seem as quaint as cassette tapes or typewriters.

There is no data indicating how many people in Archuleta watch TV but eschew subscription services. However, one local resident is known to use an antenna to get his TV channels: Pagosa Springs Town Council member Stan Holt.

In a phone call to The SUN last week, Holt reported that KOAT had lost its signal and that he had contacted the station to make them aware that Pagosa area viewers were not receiving the signal.

“I thought local residents should be aware what was going on in losing one of their channels,” Holt said.

In an e-mail response to Holt, KOAT director of engineering Gary Williams said that the Pagosa Springs Translator Association failed to renew the FCC license for the translator, leaving the station no choice but to terminate its signal in the area. Had the station continued to broadcast locally, Williams said, “We faced possible fines from the FCC for operation of a transmitter without a license.”

Williams went on to say in the e-mail that, “The expense of acquiring the license plus the cost of leasing the site from the association was not financially acceptable to us as Pagosa falls outside our broadcast area. At this time we do not have plans to reestablish our signal in Pagosa Springs.”

The Pagosa Springs Translator Association has, according to past member Fred Harman, “Become largely defunct. Everyone who was a member is dead, except me. We turned it over to (KWUF owner and manager) Will Spears.”

Spears spoke with The SUN in a phone interview and stated that KOAT’s contention was “not true. The translator association does not pay the license fee, we just rent the space. Everybody else paid their fees ... KOAT just didn’t pay.”

Spears went on to add that the FCC had contacted him regarding KOAT’s license fees. “It hadn’t been paid for the past five years,” Spears said, “and it obviously came to the attention of the station that they had a bunch of back fees and fines to pay in order to continue programming here. “ Spears estimated that KOAT would be responsible for about $15,000 in past licensing fees and fines.

Spears said that translators have been in use locally from the advent of broadcast television. In past years, viewers paid for the translators with donations to the association or via other fund-raising mechanisms. For a time, the town of Pagosa Springs budgeted $1,000 a year to keep the translators going, but stopped funding the program about 12 years ago when it was apparent that translators were quickly losing their relevance in the age of modern television broadcasting.

“Funding for them was in place long before I took office,” said Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, “and we stopped funding them a long time ago. We recognized that they were pretty much obsolete.”

After the town ceased paying for the translators, Spears started charging rent on the facility, $75 a month, and although TV stations using the translators are responsible for providing and maintaining their own equipment, Spears maintains the facilities that house the equipment and is responsible for insuring the facilities.

Cable and satellite aside, new technologies continue to mark the translators as a relic of the past. A conversion from analog signals to digital signals has been mandated by the U.S. government, with the deadline set early next year.

Local area sets, however, are exempt from the conversion mandate. According to the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Low Power, Class A and Translator TV stations are not required to transition to digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, 2009, the date specified by the FCC for conversion from analog to digital TV signals.

Nonetheless, with new technologies evolving at such a pace that anything new is pretty much obsolete the moment it hits the shelves, the future of the Pagosa area translators appears tenuous at best. Soon, a generation’s legacy of free, on-air TV may be a thing of the past.