Frustrated Berkshire County cable viewers have a reason to cheer: The local news and public affairs programming on WWLP, Channel 22, Springfield — dumped from the lineup by Charter/Spectrum Communications in April 2017 — will be restored within the next 60 days, at no additional charge.
The announcement came Friday from Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who has been campaigning ever since to get regional and state news programming back on cable for county viewers who have complained that they get plenty of New York state news from multiple network affiliates based in Albany, N.Y., but hardly any from Massachusetts.
Markey successfully brokered a private agreement between Charter Communications, branded as Spectrum cable, and Nexstar Media Group, which owns the long-established Springfield channel considered the local TV news leader in Western Massachusetts.
"The people of Massachusetts rely on local broadcast television every day," said Markey in a statement. "It's how we get the news that matters to us. It's how we stay up to date on the information that affects our lives. That's why I have been working for nearly three years to bring WWLP back to the Berkshires."
Charter confirmed the deal when contacted by The Eagle on Friday afternoon.
The agreement only covers in-state local news from WWLP, an NBC affiliate. Berkshire County viewers will continue to see network programs, syndicated entertainment shows and sports programming from WNYT, Channel 13, Albany. Under Federal Communications Commission rules, the county is considered part of the Albany market, and local stations there are the exclusive providers of network news and entertainment.
Spectrum subscribers will either see live WWLP news programming as it airs during the early morning, midday, early evening and late evening. In between the live programs, the station will replay the most recent newscast, making WWLP a 24-hour provider of state and regional news.
The Albany stations will continue to be televised in their current dial positions. The assignment of a channel number for the WWLP news programming will be announced later.
"This solution allows us to provide our Berkshires customers with more Massachusetts news under an arrangement that will not require us to charge our customers an additional fee," said Lara Pritchard, senior communications Northeast regional director for Charter Communications.
The WWLP news programming will be available on all four Spectrum systems in Berkshire County, based in Pittsfield, North Adams, Lee and West Stockbridge. Spectrum is the only cable service available for county TV viewers.
The newscasts will be part of the basic tier service level, the same as other local broadcast and public access channels.
In addition to thanking Nexstar and Charter for reaching the agreement, Markey also credited U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal for working with him to achieve the settlement.
"I especially thank Congressman Neal for his help to make this agreement a reality," he told The Eagle.
Markey also took a swipe at the FCC rules designating the Berkshires as part of the Albany TV service area. Berkshire County is, therefore, known as an "orphan county," like other counties in Wisconsin, Colorado and Nebraska, he pointed out.
Legislation introduced by Markey, Warren and Neal in May 2019 also called for the restoration of WCVB, Channel 5, to the Spectrum lineup, but no agreement has been reached on that possibility.
Markey stated that during the three-year effort to broker an agreement, he met personally with Charter and Nexstar CEOs, encouraging them to settle their dispute. He also urged FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to identify opportunities to resolve Charter's dispute with WWLP.
The entire Berkshire delegation of state lawmakers circulated a petition seeking the restoration of the two channels. Markey's efforts also were supported by the mayors of Pittsfield and North Adams.
"This is something that [they] had at the top of their list of their priorities, and I agreed with them," Markey told The Eagle. "People in the Berkshires need to hear these Massachusetts voices on their local stations."
Boston channel WCVB was removed in mid-2018, a year after the Springfield channel was eliminated. However, Northern Berkshire subscribers continue to receive WBZ-TV, Channel 4, from Boston under a separate contract, state Rep. John W. Barrett III has pointed out.
In March 2017, when Charter began its purge of Massachusetts stations from its Berkshire systems, which it had acquired as part of its takeover of Time Warner Cable, officials said the Springfield NBC affiliate was a duplication, as viewers already had an NBC station in WNYT in Albany. But local officials and subscribers lamented the loss of WWLP, a decades-long source for Western Massachusetts news.
Earlier this year, Spectrum launched a new regional news service on Channel 1, based in Worcester, that includes some local news and frequent weather updates for Berkshire County. It continues to provide an Albany-based regional all-news channel.
"Berkshire residents deserve to know Massachusetts news, from the Statehouse to issues that impact their families," Markey said. "I'm proud to have delivered this deal for the Berkshires."