Four Corners Area Still Without Colorado TV Access

May 14, 2014

WASHINGTON — From her home in Durango, Paulette Church has few options when it comes to watching Denver-area television news and programming.

“I know for me it’s not the Broncos. It’s knowing about candidates and issues, like the Rocky Mountain PBS. It’s classes for licensure and higher ed. There’s one cable channel that carries Denver news at night. There’s not a lot of on-air options. All we get is Albuquerque news,” Church said in a phone interview.

Church is not your typical citizen. She is the vice president for the local Chamber of Commerce and years ago spearheaded a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get Denver-area satellite TV coverage in La Plata and Montezuma counties. Yet her efforts so far have yielded little more than one seasonal agreement that Sen. Mark Udall brokered last year to get Denver Bronco games on KREZ, the Durango CBS affiliate and KASA, the Albuquerque Fox affiliate.

“We’re just so isolated physically because of the Red Mountains. Now we’re isolated in terms of information,” Church said.

Colorado lawmakers have sought for years to give residents of the two southwestern counties the option of watching Denver-area news and programming.

Rep. Cory Gardner is the latest to try his hand.

With the support of Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, New Mexico Democrat, Gardner sponsored an amendment that requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct a study of local-markets’ access to out-of-market programming as well as the possible virtues and downside of giving local viewers more access. The lawmakers attached the language to the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, which the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved unanimously last week.

Emily Hytha, Gardner’s communications director, said the Republican’s amendment differed from Bennet’s.

“Mr. Gardner’s amendment provides much-needed, up-to-date information that the industry, public, and Congress can use to find the best way to get Colorado residents their local broadcasts,” Hytha said.

Expanding Denver TV news and programming to the two counties is not only a longstanding issue, but also a contested one. Several parties in the dispute blame the other for causing it.

Church said the Colorado Broadcasters Association has failed to represent the interests of southwestern Colorado viewers to the Federal Communications Commission.

“I don’t feel any advocacy from them at all. They just defer to the FCC. I wanted them to be a champion,” Church said.

Dan Smith, chairman of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, did not rule out federal intervention, but said finding a free-market solution is the ideal route.

“We don’t oppose it at all. I’ve been working on this issue as long as I’ve been on the board – seven years. We’re open to it. We always prefer private parties to work out their issues of course,” Smith said.

Justin Sasso, president and CEO of the CBA, added that the association and Colorado television stations have been working to find a solution to cable and over-the-air translators but there are still obstacles with satellite coverage.

“The CBA and its member are extremely interested in finding a solution to this problem, within the limitations of what we are legally capable of doing,” Sasso said in a written statement. “The missing piece to this puzzle is satellite and we have yet to hear a solution from them that doesn’t involve lengthy legislative processes that ultimately benefit the satellite providers and provide them with the potential to remove all forms of local programming nationwide.”

Paula Maes, president of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, said her organization takes no position on legislation such as Gardner’s.

“It’s really a Nielsen issue. They’re the be all and end all,” Maes said. “We’re here to serve our viewers who are part of our DMA (designated market area) and Durango is part of our DMA.”

Changing the definition of a designated market area to include less populous, mountainous communities like Durango would require an act of Congress. Although all nine members of the Colorado delegation have supported such a change, none of the previous bills have garnered more than two cosponsors.

“It’s a highly local issue. It’s just a matter of taking action,” said Josh Green, district director for Rep. Scott Tipton, the sponsor of the latest version of the Four-Corners Television Access Act.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was surprised to learn that Durango and Cortez residents still get their news from Albuquerque instead of Denver.

“I thought it was taken care of. In Nevada, it is,” Reid told The Observer, adding that the residents of his hometown of Searchlight now get their TV news from Las Vegas instead of Utah.

Maes said a lack of access is not confined to Colorado. Parts of northeastern New Mexico get TV from Amarillo, Texas, while Las Cruces gets TV programming from El Paso, Texas, she noted.

A Republican aide said that the House Judiciary Committee would draft separate parts of the renewal of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 and that House GOP leaders were likely to quickly schedule a vote on legislation.

If Congress does not act, Church fears that La Plata and Montezuma County residents may suffer from a lack of information not only about civic and political events, but also in emergency situations such as forest fires.

She noted that exits to Missionary Ridge in Durango were cut after a massive fire there in 2002 and citizens had little way of finding out what to do.

“Not much has changed since then,” Church said.

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