WCAX, WPTZ Nearly Back On-Air After Fire

BURLINGTON, Vt.—A fire struck an antenna of a broadcast tower in Vermont last week, impacting the over-the-air broadcasts of WCAX-TV and WPTZ-TV in the area. Nearly a week later, and using a temporary antenna, service has been returned to 98% of providers in the market, according to WCAX Vice President and General Manager Jay Barton.

As of last Friday, WCAX, which owns the tower, and WPTZ had recordings or online posts that indicated that over-the-air service was not available in many cases, though instructed that the channels’ programming was available through other methods.

Barton provided an update to TV Technology on the status of the repairs and the stations’ service.

As initially reported, no injuries occurred as a result of the fire and no cause of fire has been determined; Barton said priority is to return service and any inspection will have to be completed when the antenna is removed from the tower. There was no additional damage to the tower from the fire, as the fire was contained to the antenna.

WCAX and WPTZ elected to ignore the damage antenna and rather build a temporary antenna, with that process currently underway.

The total over-the-air presence was impacted from the fire, which also impacted cable operators who use the OTA signal as their primary source. While the goal is have complete over-the-air service back as quickly as possible, Barton said they have been working with provider partners to create alternate connections through fiber and other protected direct connections to get the signal back to the headend or uplinks.

According to Barton, 80% of providers had service back within 24 hours, 95% in 48 hours and over the weekend that number reached 98%.

“The entire process has been an exercise in cooperation,” said Barton. “WCAX and WPTZ have been transparent and cooperative with each other, our engineers have been working side by side through this challenge, our corporate teams from Hearst and Gray immediately leapt into action and have worked as a team since the first hour of this problem. Our local TV broadcast community, Vermont PBS, Nexstar Broadcasting’s WFFF and Mission Broadcasting’s WVNY have opened their facilities to us to access immediate reconnections to many cable and satellite providers, and their teams have gone out of their way to help our teams get our stations back on those providers.

“I am so impressed by the total, unreserved assistance we are giving each other,” Barton continued. “We all have good relationships locally and would expect a positive experience in the broadcast community in a time of need, but this has been extraordinary. I can’t say enough how positive the cooperation across all of the TV stations has been.”

Because of weather, Barton said that the timeline is still fluid as for getting over-the-air services totally back up, but expects it to be completed in a matter of days, assuming there are no additional surprises.

UPDATE: WCAX and WPTZ have begun working more with Nexstar and Mission's WFFF and WVNY, according to Barton, which has allowed for them to mount the temporary antenna onto their own tower. The change in plan took place because of rime ice that built up over several nights this week.

Collaborating with Gray, Hearst and now Nexstar, Barton doesn't know if this kind of mutual cooperation is "unprecedented, but it is certainly impressive."

"In my mind, it is this type of mutual support that makes local broadcasting distinctly different than any other field—first and foremost, we are committed to our communities and public service, and this type of cooperation between broadcasters is a might example of that commitment," said Barton.

There is still no official word on when the stations are expected to be fully back on-air.

Also, according to WCAX's website, construction or repair on a permanent antenna will begin in late spring 2020.

UPDATE 12/3: WCAX General Manager Jay Barton says that WCAX is fully back on-air after the installation of the temporary antenna on Dec. 1.