Our Opinion: Berkshire fight resumes to keep state TV station
In April 2017, Charter Communications, parent company of Spectrum, dropped NBC affiliate WWLP, Channel 22 out of Springfield, from the local lineup. In defending that change, the telecom giant used an archaic argument from the rabbit-ears era of broadcasting: Berkshire County is in the Albany, N.Y., market, not Springfield's, because Albany is closer. That decision effectively cut off many Berkshirites from regional television news about Western Massachusetts and their county in particular. Aside from gripes that local viewers were forced to watch New York-based sports teams instead of the WWLP-carried Patriots, a more serious ramification was that the move left behind a less-informed electorate when it came to important regional and state issues.
The latest of Charter's offenses is to summarily drop Boston ABC affiliate WCVB, Channel 5, from the lineup it offers in Berkshire County (Eagle, May 12). Charter gave no warning and offered no plausible reason to its customers. Charter is only required to provide to the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications & Cable a pro forma letter explaining its pending action. In a display of arrogance characteristic of a weakly regulated virtual monopoly, Charter determined that WTEN, Channel 10 in Albany is "the correct in-market affiliate for the Berkshire market."
How can its executives from Charter Communications' headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut be so sure that a local Albany TV station is "correct" for a county located in a state whose capital is Boston? In fact, WCVB has a long history of carrying programming of interest to all Massachusetts residents, including excellent coverage of Beacon Hill that is critical to voters following developments that directly affect their lives. While the food fight between Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination may titillate our New York neighbors, viewers in the Berkshires are presumably more interested in Governor Baker's campaign for re-election in Massachusetts.
Back in the pre-Charter era, cable providers Adelphia and Time Warner threatened to yank Massachusetts-based TV stations from their lineups, but local, state and federal lawmakers managed to pressure them out of it. It could be that Charter is simply too big to care about the consequences of its actions upon its subscribers. Nonetheless, Berkshires state Representatives John Barrett III and William "Smitty" Pignatelli are encouraging the Bay State's two U.S. senators to flex some federal muscle. One of them, Ed Markey, gained considerable expertise in cable matters as a congressman while serving on the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
The quirk of geography that distances the Berkshires from its capital and thrusts it into another state's broadcast area is not unique; such anomalies occur all over the country. Therefore, Representative Pignatelli's goal, which is to have Massachusetts take the lead in having FCC regulations from the dawn of television rewritten regarding duplicate network stations in the same market, is a promising approach. It could result in Charter's providing its subscribers in the Berkshires with the signals that are truly "correct" for them, whether it wants to or not.
Likewise, local viewers should welcome Representative Barrett's exhortation that the state's premier consumer advocate, Attorney General Maura Healey, weigh in on the matter. A two-pronged federal/state approach — or even the threat of it — might convince Charter that dropping WCVB's signal simply isn't worth the trouble the move will stir up.
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