Sunday morning (Dec. 16)Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, Pa., television stations WNEP, WVIA, and WYOU all went dark at 7 a.m. Station WBRE lost its digital signal, but was able to keep the analog signal up.
Engineers at the stations didn’t immediately know what happened, as the power went out when the stations went off the air. Arriving at the transmitter site on Penobscot Mountain, engineers found the 800-foot WNEP analog tower had completely collapsed. In falling, it damaged the transmitter building containing WNEP’s DTV equipment. The tower also took down electrical lines, knocking out power to the other stations, except for the WBRE analog transmission, which operated from a separate tower and power feed. The top 150 feet of the WVIA-TV tower fell, taking with it the DTV transmitting antenna.
The snow, sleet and freezing rain that led to the ice build up and the eventual collapse and damage to the towers started late Saturday night. A combination of two storms, one from the Ohio Valley and one off the mid-Atlantic coast, caused the bad weather, according to Mike Gorsea, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, N.J., as quoted by the Allentown Morning Call.
Penobscot Mountain is approximately 2,100 feet above sea level. Falling ice made repairs to equipment difficult, but, as is often the case, engineers from local stations worked together to restore TV service to northeast and north-central Pennsylvania. Steve Mocarsky, writing on timesleader.com quoted WVIA president Bill Kelly on the support his station received not only from engineers at his station but from other stations as well. “If you ever want to see an example of collegiality in a very competitive business, it’s in the engineering community,” Kelly said.
The WNEP DTV antenna is on a different tower, and while WNEP-DT was off the air after ice detuned the antenna, the station was back on the air once the ice melted. WNEP-TV President and General Manager Lou Kirchen was quoted as saying that the station is working on converting its digital signal to analog to accommodate viewers. WNEP has information on the tower collapse and is streaming its live broadcasts on wnep.com.
Many cable systems are now receiving WNEP via fiber or from the station’s DTV signal. The situation at WVIA was just the reverse. It had a 200-foot-high auxiliary tower and standby antenna for its analog transmitter, but had no backup for the DTV antenna on the section of tower that collapsed. Due to the short tower, the station is not able to reach some distant communities in its service area. WVIA flew in engineers from a Florida firm to the site Monday to determine if the remaining 600 feet of tower is structurally sound. If the tower is found to be stable, WVIA’s Kelly says the station could be back on the air broadcasting HDTV within a week or two.
“Our great loss here is our high-definition broadcast capabilities,” he said. “That is priority one.”
The public radio station operating from the WVIA tower was not affected as its antenna was below the portion that collapsed.
WBRE and WYOU did not experience significant damage to their towers, but WYOU was off the air completely until power could be restored.
A video of the downed tower is available on the WNEP Web site. Scroll down to “16 Featured Videos” and look for “Downed Tower Video.” Some digital photos of the downed tower, missing top of the WVIA tower and damaged building are available at local.wnep.com/tower. One of the pictures shows an old GE transmitter, probably installed in the 1960s, with a green light on the front. All of the meters, however, read zero. UHF antennas, bent and radomes askew, are shown on the ground. If you’ve worked maintaining TV transmitters and tower sites, some of the pictures may be disturbing. The engineers at this site clearly have a lot of clean up and repair work to do.
For more on the storm and the impact on broadcasters in northeast Pennsylvania, see the excellent article “TV picture still snowy” by Megan Reiter, staff writer for The Time Tribune. This and other articles she wrote did a fine job of capturing the impact of the tower failures. The WYOU and WBRE pahomepage.com Web site has been following the tower collapse and recovery efforts. Additional pictures of the tower site are available from a link on the site. Also, wvia.org has news of WVIA’s recover efforts as well as photos of its tower collapse.
While the extensive damage caused by this storm will likely interrupt holiday preparations for many people at the affected stations, the good news is no one was injured. I wish them success in getting their stations back on the air, a Merry Christmas, and a less hectic New Year!