Keeping free(-ish) TV

WILLMAR -- No one knows better than Dave Stuhr that the transition five years ago from analog to digital television signals did not go particularly well for viewers of Willmar's Ultra-High Frequency TV system.

Dave Stuhr
Dave Stuhr, president of Willmar UHF Television Inc., said microwave equipment installed this summer has significantly improved the digital signal of “almost free HDTV” that’s available over the air in the Willmar area. But the lack of dues-paying members is jeopardizing the signal’s future. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

WILLMAR - No one knows better than Dave Stuhr that the transition five years ago from analog to digital television signals did not go particularly well for viewers of Willmar’s Ultra-High Frequency TV system.
He was one of them.
“I would get frustrated and there’s nothing I can do with it other than holler at the TV and say, ‘why don’t you work?’ ” said Stuhr, who is president of the five-member UHF board of directors that oversees the operations of the local system, which transmits 28 different TV channels over the air in a 25-mile radius of Willmar.
But that frustration ended this summer when Stuhr said the board spent $30,000 to purchase used microwave signal equipment that is now bringing in the high-definition TV signal “from a more reliable source” and re-broadcasting it from the rural Willmar tower as a stronger digital signal than ever before.
“I know I can safely say the reliability of the signal today, over two months ago, is very good. I’d even say excellent,” he said.
The past pixelation of the signal, which caused TV pictures to separate into little squares, has been “dramatically” reduced or eliminated for viewers in the last two months since the equipment was installed, Stuhr said.
“We get a solid signal in here now that the weather doesn’t bother,” he said.

“We get a solid signal in here now that the weather doesn’t bother,” he said. Weather conditions and the distance from Minneapolis that puts Willmar on the “fringe” of receiving a good digital signal have now been resolved with the microwave equipment.
“It’s a long-term fix as long as we have members paying to support the system,” Stuhr said.
Buoyed by the positive results from the investment, the board is looking to add new channels to the list, which currently includes the major network stations, public television, the Weather Channel and others.
But Stuhr said unless more UHF users start paying the voluntary membership dues of $50 a year, the channels will not expand and the UHF signal will eventually stop being transmitted altogether.
“We’ll go away. There won’t be UHF,” he said.
There are currently about 300 members who pay annual maintenance fees.
The revenue generated from those dues comes nowhere close to meeting the annual costs to operate the system, Stuhr said.
“I’m sure there are more than 300 households out there watching UHF today that aren’t paying,” he said. “It’s a good service, and I’m sure there are a lot of people that rely on it, but they’re not paying their fair share.”
The board is using reserve funds that were built up in the late 1990s when more than 2,000 members regularly paid dues.
“All we’ve been doing is depleting our reserves,” Stuhr said.
That fund will run out in less than five years unless revenues increase.
“We’ve hesitated to put it out there so black and white because we’re trying to stay positive,” Stuhr said. “But bottom line is the bottom line.”
After that, the signal will either “go away” or possibly be purchased by a different entity that could scramble the signal and require viewers to pay a mandatory fee, he said.
Considering that many people don’t have access to cable TV or cannot afford satellite TV, Stuhr said the “almost free HDTV” provided by UHF is a valuable service and a good alternative to paid TV.
Stuhr said he knows people are using the UHF signal but not paying for it. TV antennas wouldn’t be sold in local retail stores if people weren’t using them, he said.
For those that gave up on UHF during that tough digital transition but still have antennas on the roof, in their attic or in the window sill, Stuhr suggests people give the signal a new try.
Viewers who have digital televisions just need to re-attach the cable from the antenna to the TV and start watching, he said.
Even wind-battered antennas that have not been used for years will likely work, but he said the connecting cables, which are similar to those used for satellite TV, should be checked for corrosion.
For best results, he recommends pointing the antenna toward the UHF tower, which is located about two miles north of Willmar near the Eagle Creek golf course. If there are multiple TVs in the house, he said an inexpensive amplifier can boost the signal.
Stuhr said he thinks viewers will be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the signal and the content of the programming.
“If you used to use UHF and haven’t tried it for years - try it,” Stuhr said.
The board is actively looking for channels to add to the system, but there are limitations.
Because networks such as ESPN require paid subscribers, Stuhr said “free over-the-air” systems like UHF are not allowed to carry some popular programming.
But he speculates that many people tend to watch the major network shows or PBS, which can be accessed on UHF.
Stuhr estimates he saved $3,000 in the last few years after he pulled the plug on his satellite TV and began relying solely on the UHF digital high-definition signal.
“You can have a lot of fun for $3,000,” he said.

Membership dues of $50 can be paid to UHF Television Inc. and mailed to:
UHF Television Inc.
P.O. Box 610
Willmar, MN
Existing members can expect to receive reminders in the mail in the coming months.
For more information about the Willmar UHF service, call 866-214-8214 or go to .

Willmar UHF
New equipment costing $30,000 brought high-definition TV to Willmar airwaves, but channels could be dropped or the program abandoned if more people don’t pay the $50 voluntary membership dues. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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