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HELENA – Good news is coming for Helena fans of public television.

Gray Television recently donated a full-power Helena TV station to MontanaPBS, which should be finalized this fall.

It will be the first time commercial broadcasters are donating a full-power TV station to public broadcasting since the 1960s, according to Current, a publication for those in public media.

It’s a rare occurrence, agrees Eric Hyyppa, director and general manager of MontanaPBS.

The gift will greatly enhance MontanaPBS’ presence in Helena, said Hyyppa.

The transmitter will give them a more powerful signal that will better cover the whole city and surrounding area than its current translator.

The gift is the result of some other TV station transactions that are in the works. Cordillera Communications, which owns the CBS stations throughout Montana, is in the process of buying the NBC affiliate stations in Helena and Great Falls from Gray Television.

Cordillera suggested that Gray make the station donation to MontanaPBS because Cordillera would have wound up with two full-power stations in Helena, which is prohibited, according to Current.

By gaining a full-power station in Helena this fall, MontanaPBS’ frequencies cannot be bumped by other entities, said Hyyppa.

This becomes very important this fall when the federal government sells a number of frequencies in a spectrum auction, he said.

The auction will sell rights to transmit signals over certain frequencies that are used by TV, radio and mobile technologies like cellphone service providers, explained Hyyppa.

“Full power transmitters are guaranteed a license,” Hyyppa said. “It means we can offer better service to people in Helena and protected service for Helena.”

If MontanaPBS relied on its existing Helena translator, it would not have been protected in the auction, said Hyyppa. “At best, we would have had to move the translator or change licenses. “We’re very excited,” he added. “Helena is very important for us to serve. We’re keen on getting better coverage here. It’s going to give us more options.”

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In other news, MontanaPBS plans to beef up its news coverage for the state and is in the process of hiring a news and public affairs producer, Hyyppa said. In the future, it would like to expand its legislative and state Capitol coverage.

The current MontanaPBS translator uses channel 49 in Helena, Hyyppa said. When the transmitter is in operation, MontanaPBS will be on channel 10 and will also offer four digital channels on the same frequency – KUSM Kids, Create, World and a legislative channel.

According to Current's July article, the last such major donation of a TV station by commercial broadcasters was in New York City in the early 1960s, which became WNET-TV.

The local station sales and donation are part of a multi-station deal announced in July between Atlanta-based Gray Television, and Cordillera Communications, which owns 13 stations, many of them in Montana, according to Current.

Cordillera, which owns the CBS affiliate stations throughout Montana, will be buying Helena and Great Falls NBC affiliates, KTVH and KBGF, according to Jon Saunders, the vice president of Cordillera Communications and group manager of its Montana stations. It will also continue CW broadcasts in Helena.

Saunders said Cordillera is “looking forward to a greater presence and commitment to the capital city – and a greater television presence in Great Falls and Helena. The deal, which is expected to close this fall, will enhance our commitment to the capital city and provide a greater presence in the Great Falls and Helena markets.”

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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