Markey Proposes Legislation to Restore Berkshire TV Lineups
One was Springfield-based WWLP Channel 22 and the other was Albany, N.Y.-based WNYT Channel 13.
One major difference between the two is that no one who lives in Berkshire County could watch the Massachusetts station on cable television to hear the press conference at Pittsfield City Hall.
Spectrum cable pulled Channel 22 from its lineup earlier this year, as well as WCVB Channel 5 out of Boston. Spectrum subscribers in the Berkshires on Friday weren't able to see or hear WWLP's coverage of U.S. Rep. Edward Markey announcing a piece of legislation aimed to bring those stations back to the Berkshires.
"That is unacceptable. It makes absolutely no sense. The region's cable provider, Charter, dropped WWLP Channel 22, a Springfield NBC affiliate from its channel lineup. Berkshire families have been stripped of local television programming they enjoy and rely on before their morning commute and when they come home in the evening," Markey said.
Markey along with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal have put forth a piece of federal legislation to compel Spectrum to negotiate "in good faith" to restore those two stations to local cable subscribers.
"The Berkshires are in Massachusetts and the residents deserve programming that respects that," Markey said.
The channels were pulled from the lineup mostly because it costs extra to keep them. The Berkshires are in the Albany-designated market area and certain affiliated stations are required. That means Spectrum needs to have the New York Capital District's major network affiliates on air.
But the company is not required to provide out-of-market stations and doing so comes with an added cost to the company. So, Spectrum cut them.
While technically the company is within its rights, Markey doesn't see it as truly serving the area. The cable company has a monopoly over service to the areas and Markey believes for places like the Berkshires, both Albany and Massachusetts stations are required to really serve the people.
"I think it is fair to ask a cable company to serve an area that has customers paying," Markey said.
It isn't a new battle. Markey was on the front lines four years ago doing essentially the same thing with NECN, minus filing any actual legislation, when Time Warner Cable operated in the Berkshires (Spectrum recently bought Time Warner). After that success, Markey felt there was no more work to be done but yet, four years later, the Berkshires are again seeing channels taken away.
Markey hopes to build a better relationship between the cable provider and the Berkshires in hopes to not only resolve the current issue, but also keep the stations on in the future.
"We want to establish a relationship with Charter and the Berkshires that ensures they have access, yes to Albany, but also to Boston. They shouldn't have to choose," Markey said.
The legislation may not even be needed. Markey and Neal are meeting with Spectrum next week and on Friday Spectrum released a statement saying the company remains "open-minded" about possible solutions.
"Spectrum is committed to bringing our customers the best products and programming. We know many of our local customers are interested in Massachusetts-focused programming, and we remain open-minded about a solution that doesn't drive up costs or result in a negative viewing experience," reads a statement issued by Andrew Russell, director of communications.
Spectrum is the single cable provider in the Berkshires; there is the option of satellite services through companies such as DirecTV and Dish, but those also often abide by the same rules on "designated market area," or local television broadcast, like cable.
State Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and John Barrett III have been in this battle before, even before Time Warner. Barrett remembers fighting the cable companies in 1983 over price increases. Now, Barrett said prices are going up, service is going down, and stock prices are climbing. Barrett said the company's stock increased from $190 a share to $312 just in the last year.
He has little confidence that Spectrum will provide future upgrades to the system as technology advances, leaving the Berkshires behind the times.
"If we're going to grow the economy in Berkshire County we need a competitive system of broadband service and we need investment by the private sector. As long as they remain a monopoly out here, we're not going to see that," Barrett said.
The legislation addresses just two stations but the officials gathered on Friday believe it is only a start toward addressing a number of frustrations residents have had with the cable provider.
"Charter Spectrum doesn't address things until they've broken. There is no proactive investment. Why does that happen? It comes down to one simple thing in the marketplace: lack of competition," North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard said.
"We are served by one company and they have a disincentive to provide a high level of service."
Bernard and Barrett are both calling for increased competition.
Despite all of the kicking and screaming from local politicians — and Bernard and Mayor Linda Tyer can tell you how much of a fight each of them has put up so far — not much can be done without federal involvement. Spectrum officials might as well have flat out said nothing can be done to make changes during a series of recent meetings in Pittsfield. Tyer said the company has shown a "total disregard" for the customers.
"The chief among my complaints was the removal of Springfield and Boston programming from Pittsfield and the Berkshires," Tyer said.
"We Pittsfielders love our next-door neighbor New York. We love them. But we are citizens of the commonwealth of Massachusetts and we deserve to know what is happening in our state capital and what is happening in cities just like Pittsfield across the commonwealth."
Now local communities are getting the needed backing from the federal partners and Tyer called on residents to return the favor and advocate for the bill.
Markey said it isn't just a Berkshires issue. He said across the nation there are places in which the DMA cross state lines. He believes he'll have support from other representatives and senators representing those areas as well.
Markey is resistant to changing the DMAs (as determined by the Nielson Co.) though he wouldn't specify why. He said Spectrum has the ability to air both and the hope is that the company will.
"The DMA does not have to be changed in order to accommodate the Berkshires," Markey said.
Pignatelli said Spectrum needs to carry stations from both areas to serve the Berkshires and that the DMAs have long been "an excuse" for cable companies to avoid the extra cost of doing so.
"The cable company isn't willing to spend a nickel to maintain its customers' historical access to these local stations but customers are still paying plenty of nickels as cable bills go up and up and up," Markey said. "In the Berkshires, we want to watch Red Sox home runs at Fenway, not the Yankee strikeouts in the Bronx."
Markey' joke about sports — the Red Sox are still on local televisions — is only a small part of the issue. Markey called it a matter of "civic engagement" because residents can't keep up with Massachusetts news.
A.J. Enchill, of state Sen. Adam Hinds' office, pointed to the recent debate between Neal and primary challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud on WWLP that Berkshire residents were unable to watch.
"We have statewide races going on right now and people in the Berkshires can't find out what is going on with these campaigns," state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said.
Farley-Bouvier characterized the legislation and unified resistance to the cable company as consumer protection. She said the residents aren't getting the service they deserve.
"It is frustrating to hear story after story of individuals — and I will tell you it is chiefly the elderly who are being impacted by this — increasing costs, outrageous costs they are paying as consumers for basic information about their own state," Farley-Bouvier said.
"Charter/Spectrum cares much more about CEO salaries and shareholder revenue than they care about consumers and that is not right."
Meanwhile, Executive Director of Pittsfield Community Television Shawn Serre said local access stations are also threatened by the company's operations. He said a recent FCC rule introduced would essentially cut funding for local access stations.
"The actions of companies like Spectrum show blatant disregard for their customers in areas like ours. We are just not important enough to them to care apparently," Serre said.
Farley-Bouvier added that cable television isn't like other companies and should be treated more like a utility.
"This private business, this faraway corporation, is in the realm of working with consumers in an essentially a public utility. That means you have to deal with the government. That means you have to deal with consumer champions like the senator. That means you don't get to take advantage of our elderly neighbors," Farley-Bouvier said.
The last time the Berkshire fought this battle over the loss of stations, it took the state's congressional delegation to rectify it. It may take an act of Congress to win this one.
Tyer added that she not only wants the stations back but wants them back without customer bills increasing.
Tags: cable television, Congress, federal officials, Markey,
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