Channeling the Swan

By Beacon Staff

It would seem that I’ve been looking further than necessary for my TV signal. There’s this satellite about 22,000 miles away, zipping around in what’s called a geosynchronous orbit, that gives me my signal. And since satellites aren’t cheap, neither is my signal. But, as I recently learned, maybe I’ve been looking too far.

I dropped in on Bill Jaynes the other day. Bill is the chairman of board that oversees the quasi-governmental Swan Hill TV District, a local organization that provides over-the-air TV service to residents of the northern Swan Valley. The district has an antenna array on top of Swan Hill, a location with a clear view in several directions, and from there it receives and re-broadcasts TV signals to valley residents who, for reasons of geography, might otherwise be unable to receive them.

Bill, justifiably proud of Swan Hill TV, showed me the channel lineup as I sat in his living room. The onscreen guide looked pretty similar to the one on my digital tuner that’s connected to my satellite dish. Obviously, it was somewhat shorter, but not all that short. By the time we’d run through it, I got the same reaction I get when I scroll through mine: All those channels and I can’t decide what to watch.

According to the website (www.SwanHillTV.net), the District started out in 1959 as a club with the modest goal of redirecting the NBC signal from Kalispell to the homes on the east side of Swan Hill. The original clubhouse looked like an item from one of these “Redneck” cartoons. You know, a shack that looks like an outhouse with a big antenna on top of it. The caption would be, “Redneck Home Theater.”

But it didn’t keep that look for long. The Swan Hill TV District was formed in 1961 and began to receive funds from Flathead County generated by an assessment on the residents it potentially served. For almost 50 years, the assessment was $5 per residence per year. In addition to acquiring land and equipment, the district began to acquire channels. Channels are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and there aren’t very many of them. But prior to the proliferation of mobile devices, they were easier to get and the district managed to snag six of them.

Then in 2008, a kind of miracle happened. The miracle, called digital broadcasting, allowed a lot more information to be passed along the channels. Each of the channels, it turned out, was capable of passing enough information for high-definition, fast moving video (yes, both the definition and the speed matter). But each of the channels was, as an alternative, capable of holding several lesser quality (but still very good) subchannels. Bill credits former chairman Russell Pickett with aggressively pursuing grants to upgrade the equipment to support digital broadcasting. Anyway, when the dust settled, Swan Hill TV found itself with six channels, each of which it could split four ways. It currently provides 24 subchannels of programming to folks in its service area. (To compensate the costs of new digital equipment and 50 years of inflation, the annual assessment was raised to $20.)

Unfortunately, I live on the wrong side of the hill. As part of the license the district has from the FCC to broadcast its signals, it is required to broadcast them according to precise specifications – specifications that include the direction, the spread, the wattage, and even the height from which the broadcast originates. If you happen to reside in the directions those antennae point, you’re in luck. I, unfortunately, do not. The good news is that the district is not alone in its efforts to bring free TV to the area. A quick look at its website will show that a parallel group, Blacktail TV District, does similar work from locations in Polson, Big Arm, Lakeside and Whitefish. Although the programming is somewhat different, I should be able to receive signals from Blacktail TV at my home in Woods Bay.

So, regardless of which side of Swan Hill you live on, you may want to look into the offerings of one of these (almost) free TV services. The Swan Hill TV website explains it all. But, if it’s not clear, call the District at 751-5155.

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