Football fans can blame an ice-covered tree for knocking the NFC Championship game off the air for several minutes Sunday just as the Seattle Seahawks were rallying for the win.
But as catastrophic as the transmitter shutdown was for Spokane-based Fox affiliate KAYU-TV, it could have been much worse.
“We had a guy on duty on” Tower Mountain, KAYU General Manager Doug Holroyd said. “Had we not had people in place … it would have been the end of the game for those folks.”
The series of events started at 6:05 p.m. Sunday when the tree, which was not interviewed to determine which team it favored, fell across a power line that feeds the KAYU transmitter on Tower Mountain.
Avista Utilities has several redundancies built into its system, Holroyd said. So, when the tree knocked one line out, another immediately came on to feed the substation. But that new line sent a surge of electricity that overloaded the surge protectors built into the transmitter.
“Once it happened, (the engineer) started the sequence to get it back up,” Holroyd said. “But you have to start backward and work your way forward. You can’t have the transmitter on while you turn on the other pieces. It takes nine minutes.”
Nine minutes at 2 a.m., or even 10:30 a.m., would hardly get a notice, he said. But when it comes at the critical point in a game being watched by the majority of Washington TV viewers, it’s going to leave a mark.
“Honestly, you feel heartsick when it’s happening. And when it’s over and you are back on, you just start damage control,” Holroyd said. “That’s all you can do.”
The outage appeared mostly as a blip for Comcast and DirecTV customers in the region that uses KAYU’s signal. However, the outage lasted longer than nine minutes to Dish Network customers in and around Spokane, over-the-air users and distributors like Time Warner Cable.
“Once we got our signal up and running, they had to get their reset system up and running,” Holroyd said. “So, it took them a few more minutes to get their signals restored.”
Holroyd said he didn’t know how many customers were affected. But the viewership numbers from the game were massive.
According to an analysis of the Seattle market, about 53.9 percent of televisions were switched on during the game; of those, some 85 percent of viewers were watching Seattle come from behind for the 23-17 victory that will send the Seahawks to play the Denver Broncos on Feb. 2 in New Jersey.
“Actually, those numbers were higher than the average Super Bowl,” Holroyd said of viewership numbers from the NFC Championship game. “The entire state is unified behind this team.”
Speaking of the big game, Holroyd said his station has a plan to avoid lightning striking twice.
“We, of course, will have engineers on the mountain and in the control room,” he said. “We are taking steps to make sure that we do not experience an outage during Super Bowl by having multiple sources providing electricity simultaneously.”