Berkshire County cable subscribers might need an act of Congress for Spectrum to restore a pair of Massachusetts televisions stations to its local lineup.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey plans to file federal legislation shifting the Berkshires from the Albany, N.Y.-designated market area to the Springfield market.
If approved, Springfield/Boston network affiliates would have priority over ones in the Albany area that Spectrum says they are currently required to carry in Pittsfield, North Adams and 14 towns, per Federal Communications Commission regulations.
"Berkshire County residents deserve access to local Bay State television programming, including news from the state capital and Massachusetts sports coverage," Markey stated in an email to The Eagle. "I've called on Charter Spectrum to work with WCVB and WWLP to ensure that these channels are on the air, and I will also be introducing federal legislation that would bring this local programming back to Berkshires viewers."
Charter Communications, parent company of Spectrum, removed NBC affiliate WWLP, Channel 22, in Springfield from its Berkshire lineup in March 2017 and this week dropped ABC affiliate WCVB, Channel 5, from Boston.
Last year, Charter officials cited duplication with another NBC affiliate it carries from Albany in pulling the plug on WWLP. But Charter has given no reason for removing WCVB, only to say it's an out-of-market station.
"Berkshire County is part of the Albany-Schenectady TV market and we carry the designated in-market ABC affiliate, WTEN," Charter spokesman Andrew Russell wrote in an email to The Eagle this week.
Removal of the two stations leaves only WBZ-TV, Boston, in North Berkshire and WSHM-TV, Springfield, in Central and South Berkshire; both CBS affiliates on Channel 3 of their respective cable lineups.
Markey's office indicates that there's precedent to help so-called "orphan counties" — areas that can only get broadcast television stations from a neighboring state.
The senator's staff cited a recent example of how satellite subscribers in Monongalia and Preston counties in West Virginia, part of the Pittsburgh market, were only able to get Pennsylvania stations. The FCC ruled in February that satellite providers would be allowed to also carry West Virginia-based network affiliates.
Markey's promise of a congressional fix for Berkshire County is welcome news for local municipal cable officials and state lawmakers.
"It's about time," said Linda Miller, chairwoman of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee.
The committee serving Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Sheffield will hold its quarterly meeting Tuesday, and Spectrum dropping WWLP and WCVB from the Berkshire lineup is one of several issues on the agenda. Spectrum officials will be in attendance, the company confirmed to The Eagle. Miller says Spectrum must be represented at the quarterly meetings, as required by the five towns' cable license agreement with Spectrum.
Miller urges local subscribers to keep the pressure on Spectrum and federal lawmakers for overall better cable television service.
"I'm going to emphasize at the meeting people must contact Markey and [Massachusetts U.S. Sen.] Elizabeth Warren. We can yell and try to get things changed," she said.
State Sen. Adam Hinds applauds Markey's efforts, but he and the rest of the Berkshire legislative delegation have started an online petition, thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/967/805/532/, calling on subscribers to tell Spectrum that they want WWLP and WCVB returned to the cable provider's lineup.
"We hear every single day about losing those stations. I'm not sure Charter Spectrum gets it," he said.
The removal of WWLP and WCVB aside, Spectrum subscribers and local officials were left fuming this year when the company switched to an encrypted, all-digital signal, which requires the use of converter boxes on any TV set.
Spectrum said the upgraded signal is necessary to protect theft of programming. Many subscribers, during public meetings in Great Barrington and Pittsfield, were miffed at paying monthly fees for the boxes — up to $11.75 per month, per box — after an interim period during which the fees are waived. Many complained that they were difficult to install or faulty, requiring a replacement.
In a Facebook post to constituents this week, state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, accused Spectrum of deceptive business practices and said help is on the way. Barrett noted that a representative from the state Attorney General's Office will be in the Berkshires to hear individual complaints from Spectrum subscribers.
"How many times were you [led] to believe that by switching to a new package it would save you money and then realized that the new package cost you more with fewer channels — these are deceptive business practices," Barrett wrote. "How many of your parents were charged an outlandish price for a simple installation of those digital boxes?"
The former North Adams mayor noted in the Facebook message that he would post the locations where an assistant attorney general will meet with aggrieved Spectrum customers Monday. The Eagle was unable to confirm with the Attorney General's Office if one of its members has been assigned to investigate complaints against Spectrum.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-496-6233.