L.A. Stations Prepare For Worst, Hope For Best

The Station Fire's harrowing expansion in Southern California has kept station staffers on edge as they watch it approach the numerous broadcast facilities atop Mt. Wilson. The fire has grown to over 122,000 acres and gotten to within a quarter mile, by some estimates, of some of the 20-odd transmitter structures on the mountain. But it has thus far not overtaken the mountain.

Tuesday's weather sees an uptick in humidity around Angeles National Forest, which should help to slow the wildfire's terrifying momentum. Nonetheless, stations have contingency plans in place in the event of a worst-case scenario.

Cable, satellite and telco subscribers should not be affected if the towers are consumed by fires, but over the air viewers are a different story. NBC O&O KNBC is building temporary transmitter facilities elsewhere in the #2 DMA, and it and Telemundo sisters KVEA and KWHY are sharing their digital subchannels. KNBC is broadcasting over digital channel 4.1 and 52.2, KVEA is on 52.1 and 4.2, and KWHY is airing on 22.1 and 4.4.

"This will allow the three station signals to be broadcast from both Mt. Harvard and Mt. Wilson," said a KNBC spokesperson.

Univision has also taken steps to help its viewers get local news at this critical time. KMEX is offering live video streaming on univisionlosangeles.com within the DMA, and is issuing updates to cell phones-a service that KMEX relied on heavily during the L.A. earthquake last summer.

With considerable radio holdings, Univision has been using that media to tell Spanish speakers in greater Los Angeles about the alternative ways to get news on the wildfires.

Over at the Fox duopoly, the transmitter engineer has left the site, and the stations are operating it remotely from their home base. "Backup transmitters, towers, antennas and generators are standing by," says a spokesperson Sept. 2. 

The L.A. stations were blasted by the Los Angeles county supervisor for not providing more thorough coverage as the Station Fire gathered momentum over the weekend.

"There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go," County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich told the L.A. Times. "I'm upset. The media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county's history."

Local news execs countered that their coverage was sufficient, and that many were surprised by how quickly the fire grew over the weekend.

Indeed, the Station Fire has been a difficult one to predict. As of Sunday night, fire commanders seemed sure that it would take over the whole of Mt. Wilson, including the broadcast facilities.

Station executives continue to hold out hope that that fate will be avoided.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.