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Future uncertain for Libby television signals

by Brad FuquaWestern News
| April 21, 2009 12:00 AM

Push aside all the technical talk, the eventual transition to digital television and different types of nonprofit groups. The bottom line is Libby could soon lose the ability to operate and maintain its community TV translators because of a lack of funds.

“As far as I’m concerned, it will depend on the community of Libby,” said Jim Nelson, president of Libby Video Club – the organization in charge of maintaining the eight translators. “I don’t want to see the system die. I feel there’s still a need for it as long as there is commercial television.”

At the moment, only one over-the-air station is available – KPAX, the CBS affiliate out of Missoula. Snow has prevented officials from getting up on the translator site on Sheldon Mountain. Once that occurs and if the money and equipment is in place, Nelson expects to see a lineup of five channels.

“We’re going for broke; we’re going for all Montana stations,” Nelson said. “Libby is in Montana.”

Besides KPAX, the lineup would also include the NBC affiliate from Kalispell, the CW out of Missoula and PBS that originates in Bozeman and re-transmitted through Missoula. The fifth channel would be an ABC affiliate – possibly out of Spokane, Wash., but preferably out of Missoula.

“Sometime between now and the middle of June, we should have all five, depending on what we get for money,” Nelson said. “I’m being hopeful about the ABC station out of Missoula. We won’t know until we get up there. If we can’t get it (the signal), we’ll work on getting digital out of Spokane. One way or the other, we’ll have one of the two.”

The mid-June timeframe refers to the Federal Communications Commission’s plans to fully require stations to transmit a digital signal. Libby residents won’t need those converter boxes at that time because equipment at the translators will take the digital signal and continue to re-transmit it in the old analog format even after the FCC’s June 14 target date.

But eventually, the whole system will go digital and as a result, Nelson urges locals to take advantage of the coupon system that helps with the purchase of a converter box while the program is still available.

“I want to apologize to people who are able to watch only one or two channels,” Nelson said. “It was not our fault … we’re doing the best we can with the money we have. When things start settling down in the middle of June and everybody is on the same page, then we’ll be able to move forward and get all five stations on.”

Libby finds itself in a unique situation when it comes to TV translators. One of the bigger systems in the country, it has been around since the late 1950s. Many systems are operated through a tax district of some sort but Libby’s translators took a different route. As a result, Libby Video Club has operated on donations, which have dwindled over the years.

Two weeks ago, Libby Video Club sent out letters to 5,026 Libby households in an effort to raise needed funds. The video club’s Clarence Johnson said the postage cost more than $900 and as of Friday, no donations had come in.

“Last year, only 45 donations came in and we’re hoping for a lot better for this year,” Johnson said.

It was just the second time in 16 years that the Libby Video Club did a mass mailing to all residents. Those 45 donations in 2008 amounted to $3,000 with 12 percent coming from one individual.

“You can’t buy equipment and operate eight translator systems on that kind of money,” Nelson said. “I know a lot of people are on fixed income or can’t afford satellite or cable.”

Football fans may be especially interested in how the translator issue shakes out. The popular University of Montana football games are broadcast on KPAX. In addition, if the ABC affiliate’s signal from Missoula can be picked up, Montana State University football games would also become available.

At the current time, the local cable television operator uses the Libby Video Club signal for KPAX. It’s possible that in the future, the cable company could choose to no longer use the signal and make other arrangements for a CBS affiliate.

Nelson and Johnson hope to see donations come in.

“We can’t expect the government to pay the bill,” Nelson said. “The community still has to donate to us to pay our power bills, site permits, licensing fees and equipment. Nothing in life is free. Down the road, we might qualify to get some help and assistance from the government for the digital transition stage … but right now, things are pretty tight.”

One point of confusion for some involves the video club’s nonprofit status. The Internal Revenue Service considers various criteria when making decisions on what type of nonprofit designation to grant. Most basic nonprofits such as churches and charitable organizations fall under the 501(c)(3) tax code. Libby Video Club, however, is a 501(c)(4) which prohibits the organization from qualifying for grants.

As of last week, Nelson said $600 was in the Libby Video Club account – enough to pay the power bill for a couple more months.

“After that, we’re out of money unless donations start coming in,” Nelson said.

“We’re not trying to shake people up. We’re just letting them know that people depend on our system,” Johnson added. “Like everything else, we’re not begging. But we need Libby to understand that if we go off the air.”

To Contribute

Contributions to Libby Video Club can be made at:

• First National Bank

• Glacier Bank

• Libby Video Club, P.O. Box 977, Libby, MT 59923.

• Online at Paypal using the e-mail address: libbyvideoclub@yahoo.com .

For Information

• Clarence Johnson, 293-4039

• Rick Klin, 293-5014

• Jim Nelson, 293-1393 (evenings only) or e-mail him at jnelson781@juno.com

• Jim Miles, 291-5657