A translator lifting Portland television station signals into Wallowa County has been turned off –– apparently for good.
Rural Oregon Wireless Television, the nonprofit that operated the translator on Sheep Ridge west of Enterprise, said the move was made because of “budget and maintenance” constraints.
The plug was pulled in mid-July, meaning county residents who depended on it have been left hanging.
Initially, the costs had been borne by the four Portland stations, according to David Boyd, president of the group.
The explanation as to why the funding disappeared has to do with ratings, which drives how much a television can charge for advertising.
Boyd said the Portland stations initially hoped to add Wallowa County to its Designated Market Area as defined by the Nielsen rating firm. That didn’t happen. Instead, Wallowa County essentially has been added to the Spokane market area since both Dish and Direct TV provide signals from stations there to Wallowa subscribers.
Boyd said the Spokane stations were contacted but showed little interest because of the cost and remoteness of the translator.
“It’s an expensive proposition,” said Boyd, noting that the site is snow-covered most of the winter, which means using a snowmobile or even a helicopter for access. “It has to be one of the hardest translators out there to maintain.”
Rural Oregon’s next stop was to consult with a translator district that serves Union and Baker counties and the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners spring of 2016.
The thought was similar to forming a library district, which is ongoing, only in this case, the tax money raised would go to support translator operation. Wallowa County showed little interest.
“We have just finished our first budget session and can tell you with certainty that the county will not have any extra funds to put toward the translator,” Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts told Blue Mountain Translator District board in an email on April 25, 2016,
Blue Mountain offered to serve as technical advisor to Wallowa County, according to board member Anna Dean, who also noted that it was not possible under its existing structure to take on the Sheep Ridge translator.
Blue Mountain collects money from residents in the two counties to fund its operation.
In addition to finances, Boyd said the relatively few number of people in the county served by the signal is also a factor.
“It’s a numbers game for sure,” Boyd said.
While there are no firm estimates of how many homes actually used the translator signal, Boyd confirmed that Rural Oregon had received only a handful of protest calls. The Chieftain has fielded around half a dozen calls.
Boyd said one of the ways to judge support for translator service is to watch the response when it goes down. Large numbers of angry calls are generally a good indicator of favor.
That did not happen with Sheep Ridge.
Short of a major outcry from county residents, such as was heard when the county announced it was closing the library system, Boyd said the outlook is bleak.
The stations lost to the shutdown include KATU-TV, KGW-TV, KOIN-TV and KPTV-TV. Oregon Public Broadcasting continues to send its signal into Wallowa County from a separate translator.
When contacted regarding taking on the commercial signals, OPB had not comment.