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Antenna users left in the lurch

Television viewers in Jackson and Macon counties who get their reception the old-fashioned way — with an antenna — have been without UNC-TV for the past month.

The UNC-TV translator on Coweee Mountain malfunctioned in early December. New equipment finally arrived last week, and station workers hoped to make the repairs to restore the signal this week.

“The only problem now is having the weather cooperate with new installation,” said Steve Volstad, spokesperson for UNC-TV.

Getting antenna reception in the mountains isn’t easy under the best of circumstances. Just ask Tim Lewis, who lives on Piney Mountain south of Dillsboro. He positions his TV by the window with the antennas aimed out. To enhance the signal, he crafted a makeshift dish out of aluminum foil and props it on top of the TV.

Even then, he only picks up two stations: UNC-TV and FOX.

Since the signal outage, Lewis has been craving his favorite PBS shows like “Antiques Roadshow,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “NOVA” and the channel’s myriad nature and science programs. Lewis isn’t the only one frustrated by the outage.

“One friend has given up and gotten her dish hooked up,” Lewis said.

As for Lewis?

“I have never paid a cable bill and never owned a dish,” said Lewis, an artist and photographer. And he doesn’t plan to start now.

Volstad doesn’t know how many of the station’s viewers rely on antennas for their reception. Nationwide, the number is about 12 percent.

“It is certainly not a majority, but it is not insignificant,” Volstad said.

While UNC-TV has gone digital, FOX is still analog, which means Lewis has gotten quite good at hooking and unhooking his digital converter box depending on which station he wants to watch. Every day since the outage, Lewis reroutes the wires behind his TV and connects the digital converter box to see if UNC-TV is back on the air yet. Disappointed, he unhooks it all and goes back to FOX.

The outage was caused by an electrical failure in the antenna on the Cowee translator the second week in December, unrelated to any of the snowstorms of late. Crews put in a temporary antenna, but it doesn’t reach nearly as far.

“It is stopgap. It is not full power so there would be some places that might not get a signal at all,” Volstad said.

Translators are a smaller version of full-blown towers.

“It is what we use to get the signal into nooks and crannies, which you have so many of in the mountains,” Volstad said.

Lewis’s biggest complaint during the wait was that UNC-TV didn’t post a word of the outage on its Web site to communicate with other viewers like him.

Volstad said the station usually does so when an outage affects a large area, but agreed a web posting would have been a good idea in this case as well.

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