Aspen’s history with live, local TV influx

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Turn on Channel 16 in Aspen now, and one will see replays of “lifestyle programs” that are as likely to be set in the Hamptons or Miami Beach as they are in Aspen.
Such is the current state of Plum TV, which has operated the channel since the mid-2000s, emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership earlier this year, and failed to produce a morning show this summer. The new owners — former MTV executives Joseph Varet and Morgan Hertzan — have been saying since this summer that they are trying to strike a deal with a local operator that would return regular Aspen-based programming to the channel, which is best known for the morning show it produced featuring live reports from the top of Aspen Mountain.
It’s unclear what will happen with the channel this winter season. Hertzan said via email that Plum will be “back in Aspen this winter,” but he would not specify whether that meant there would be a live local morning show on the channel. He said Plum would be making an announcement about the winter’s Aspen programming “in the coming weeks.”
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said that part of the contract Plum had been working under with SkiCo, which gives Plum the rights to broadcast from company facilities such as the ski mountains, includes a stipulation that it produce a winter morning show featuring skiing. Plum bought the channel from SkiCo in 2004. Hanle said Plum and SkiCo are still discussing arrangements for this winter, with ski season opening in less than a month on Nov. 22, which is Thanksgiving Day.
Channel 16 has a long history of local television, going back to the mid-1990s, when SkiCo bought the station, specifically so it could have a platform to “talk to people in Aspen everyday about skiing, the mountain, how much fun everyone could have everyday,” said former SkiCo Chief Operating Officer John Norton, who was instrumental in the ski company acquiring the station.
The characteristics of the morning show, which persisted through the versions produced by Plum, included a discussion of the weather, skiing conditions, appropriate layering strategies and on-mountain events.
Norton remembers the Channel 16 days fondly.
“We just looked for ways to have fun and get interesting people in front of the cameras,” Norton said, which he described as being as easy as “falling off a log.”
“What place has more interesting people than Aspen?” said Norton, who moved to Crested Butte in 2002. “It was a laugh a minute.”
Carolyne Heldman, now with Aspen Public Radio, ran the station for the SkiCo in its first years. The television production arm of the company was a little more “odd ball” than the typical functions of running a ski resort, she said.
“We didn’t speak the same language as the rest of the staff,” Heldman said. But while buying a television station was seen at the time as a radical move, it ended up paying off, she said.
“It was a valuable service,” she said.
She also recalls fondly the station’s live broadcasts of the 24 Hours of Aspen endurance ski race, where athletes would try and rack up as many laps on Aspen Mountain as they could in 24 hours.
“We covered it live from start to finish,” she said. “This was before the days when everyone realized this thing was insane.”
The bread and butter for the station, as far as revenue, were “advertorials,” where local businesses would pay a fee to be featured in four-minute segments on the morning show, Heldman said.
“It’s standard operating procedure now, but at the time it was kind of new,” she said.
With the future of live local television in Aspen in the balance, Norton had simple advice for its future stewards.
“Have fun, it’s Aspen,” he said.