Lawmakers prepare letter to FCC asking for Ch. 5 exemption
According to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, a "delegation letter" to be signed by Massachusetts U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, who is being sworn in today, as well as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, is expected to request an exemption from Federal Communications Commission rules that permit a blackout of Channel 5 in the Berkshires during ABC network and some syndicated programming.
The blackouts exist legally because, as the Albany, N.Y., ABC affiliate serving the Berkshires, WTEN has the right to require that county Time Warner viewers who want to see ABC programs must tune to Channel 10 because it airs local and regional commercials between programs and during breaks.
Ever since the dawn of the TV age, Berkshire County, much like Bennington County in southern Vermont, has been defined as being part of the Albany marketing area for commercial purposes, since some residents shop in the Capital District's malls and auto dealerships.
But a few local viewers complain that they are deprived of Channel 5's Massachusetts news coverage when stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing break during daytime or prime-time evening hours. The Boston station's regularly scheduled early morning, midday, early evening and late evening newscasts are allowed to be shown on Time Warner, which has no jurisdiction over federally permitted blackouts.
Other viewers are irritated by the cable company's imminent shift of Channels 16, 17, and 18 -- public-access channels which televise local government meetings and other Berkshire-centric fare -- to digital channels 116, 117 and 118. Those require digital equipment, which three-quarters of Time Warner customers have.
Most TV sets manufactured over the past 10 years are also capable of receiving the higher-numbered channels. For a few people with older sets, the cable system is making digital adapters available at no cost through Dec. 31, 2014. Thereafter, a 99 cents per month charge will be imposed.
At the most recent Lenox Select Board meeting, Steven Moritz, chairman of the five-town cable committee -- which covers Lenox, Stockbridge, Lee, Great Barrington and Sheffield -- emphasized that the group represents only the South County communities.
"We don't work for Time Warner. We have no ties with them," he said.
The committee's role includes contract compliance as well as periodic negotiation of 10-year licenses with Time Warner for the five towns at monthly and eventual weekly open meetings, including two public hearings. Then, the towns' boards comment on and approve or reject the deals. The just-concluded contract was signed recently by the Lenox board, the last of the towns to seal the deal. Municipal law firm Kopelman and Paige reviews the agreements.
The contract had come in for barbed criticism from local resident George C. Jordan III, publisher-editor of the weekly Berkshire Beacon, at a previous Lenox Select Board session.
"People said we broke open meeting laws," said Moritz, who pointed out that all meetings were posted and advertised for the public according to state requirements and that there were no violations. "We were very careful not to do that, we wanted to be inclusive so everyone could have a voice. I think we're owed an apology about that," he declared.
"I don't think anybody sitting at this table really loves the idea of a monopoly," said Select Board Chairman David Roche. "And they kind of do," referring to Time Warner.
But Linda Miller, a five-town cable committee member who helped negotiate the contract, pointed out that the license deal with Time Warner is not exclusive.
"Nobody else wants to come here" to serve a relatively small population of cable customers, Miller explained.
Moritz also pointed out that viewers can subscribe to Dish Network, Direct TV or use video-streaming services for access to TV programs.
On the Channel 5 issue, as Moritz put it, "Time Warner's hands are tied as much as everyone else's."
The discussion ended on a harmonious note as Selectman Channing Gibson praised the cable committee for "an open, fairly presented" contract renewal procedure.
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