The digital dark ages

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New TV signals are spotty west of Lookout Mountain

By Vicky Gits

After 20 years of soaking up flawless free TV thanks to a rooftop antenna and line-of-sight to his house in Brook Forest Estates, Bill Bergan is understandably alarmed to watch his four screens fading slowly as television goes digital.

For Bergan, the advent of so-called cutting-edge digital TV on the Front Range means a giant step backward. His four television sets could become useless furniture by June 12 unless he forks over $75 a month for Dish Network.

“I guess I was fat, dumb and happy all these years,” said Bergan, who lives at 10,000 feet on Deer Road, nearly on top of a mountain. Since channels 7 and 9 went digital in April and disappeared, he has been reduced to mainly watching temporarily non-digital channels 2, 4 and 6.

He lost channel 12 sometime before April, and channel 31 is a shadow of its former self. There is a chance that by August he will have a good shot to see Channel 6 when it goes high power.

“My life doesn’t circle around television, but it’s nice to have local news and programming,” Bergan said. “I guess I’ll have to get a new radio with a strong signal and read newspapers.”

TV stations aren’t advertising that the party is pretty much over for fans of broadcast TV who live more or less west of Lookout Mountain — because the major TV stations agreed not to bombard the houses behind the antennas. 

Flatland TV

The television stations are mostly switching to directional, low-power TV signals as opposed to omnidirectional, high-power signals, said Al Hislop, an electronics engineer who lives on Lookout Mountain. In short, that means less coverage in the mountains and more in the flatlands.

“People on Lookout Mountain said they don’t want a million watts beaming into their houses,” Hislop said.

Lake Cedar Group, the consortium including channels 7 and 9 that wanted to build a supertower on Lookout Mountain, said it would reduce the broadcast signal to the west to get the needed rezoning, Hislop said.

“So when the TV stations say all you need is a converter box, that’s true if you live to the east of the tower, with 99 percent of the population, but is not true for the 1 percent that live closer to Idaho Springs,” Hislop said.

Though the antennas primarily face east, that doesn’t rule out every place in Evergreen. Jim Peterson on Bear Mountain, for example, has a digital TV with only rabbit ears, not even a rooftop antenna, and he can see channels 4, 7, 9, 12, 20, 25 and 31, but not 6. “I cannot get any signal at all from Channel 6,” he said.

Closer to the supertower on Lookout Mountain, Hislop of Genesee can get about six digital channels over the air.

Thinking out of the box

Bergan’s modest ‘50s A-frame is in a forest of lodgepole pines but exposed enough to get good broadcast television transmission over the air — at least, it was in the past.

He even has a sightline to the east and Mount Morrison, the source of Rocky Mountain PBS Channel 6.

In 1988, when he moved to his “tranquility base,” he put up a mega-antenna on his rooftop. Channels 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12 and 31 all came in clearly until the digital conversion. Now he can see only channels 4 and 6 with any clarity. He has four TVs, including one in the kitchen.

A retired telephone company manager who considers himself fairly astute technology-wise, Bergan got the coupons and bought the converter boxes at Walmart. He hooked them up, but nothing clicked. He got replacement boxes that also didn’t work.

“They said this was going to be a magnificent change,” said Bergan, who was under the impression that the converter box would change the digital signals into analog and all would be well as usual.

One person told him the reason was that the Denver TV stations, namely 7 and 9 and the Lake Cedar Group, were punishing mountain dwellers for trying to stop the construction of a supertower.

Radiation reduction

The main reason for the mountains going dark, says Hislop, is not retribution but a concession on the part of the TV stations. To get the zoning to build the towers, they agreed to reduce the radiation inflicted on people near the towers. To reduce the radiation, they had to reduce the power and limit directionality.

“People on Lookout Mountain said they don’t want a million watts beaming into their houses,” Hislop said. “There are houses that would get hit pretty hard with omnidirectional antennas. To get rezoning, they said they would reduce the direction to the west because they were going to be putting out more power. Channel 4 had 50,000 watts at the peak before. A digital channel has 1 million watts on the average, which would increase the radiation 20 times.”

“Channels 7 and 9 were also going with a million watts originally, but it turns out … they stayed with channels in the low-frequency range and are transmitting with lower power. As part of the zoning they agreed they would transmit with directional antennas.”

As a member of Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, Hislop fought the construction of a supertower on Lookout Mountain until Congress issued the 2006 edict favoring broadcasters over citizens’ objections.

A pretty good chance

It’s not impossible to get a digital signal over the air in Evergreen, says Channel 7 engineer Rick Craddock, even though the signals are not pointed as westerly as before.

“They are not broadcasting in this direction because people are concerned with radiation,” said Craddock.

“It’s difficult because in many places (in the mountains) you don’t have line of sight. It’s not absolutely necessary. Coverage did decline to the west when the tower on Lookout Mountain went up.” Channel 7 went from analog to digital on April 16.

Channel 6 work in progress

Back at Bill Bergan’s house in Brook Forest Estates, all hope is not lost.

The public TV station may disappear June 12, but there could be a dramatic comeback in August, when Rocky Mountain PBS goes high power and to a higher altitude.

On Aug. 10, Channel 6 will be broadcasting from 200 feet higher on the standing Mount Morrison tower and be pumped up to 1 million watts, compared with the current 315,000 watts, said John Anderson, the station’s director of engineering. (The transition to high power has been delayed by manufacturing problems, he said.)

Between June 12 and Aug. 10, Channel 6 expects to lose between 5 and 10 percent of its coverage area temporarily.

Anderson suggested that Bergan try reducing the number of TVs he has connected to his rooftop antenna. A single split reduces reception by half, he said.

Will the new antenna configuration affect mountain-area reception?

“Until we actually get the antenna in the air, I don’t know 100 percent for sure. Our study shows we should have some backfill. … UHF doesn’t bounce as well as VHF. The lower VHFs travel more like a light bulb. Channels 14 and above travel more like a flashlight beam,” Anderson said.

Anderson recommends using a rooftop antenna and moving the antenna around, because antenna height and position can be crucial. The antenna needs to be about 10 feet above the roof.

“He won’t get us right now, but if everything ships on time, we should be on the air with high power by the middle of August. I recommend he should hang in there.”

Contact Vicky Gits at 303-350-1042 or vicky@evergreenco.com.