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Markey, Warren, Neal to file legislation forcing Charter to carry Massachusetts stations

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard noted the irony that WWLP, the NBC affiliate in Springfield, sent a camera crew to the news conference but coverage of it would not be available to Charter's Berkshire County subscribers.
A Charter-Spectrum service van parked on Main Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Pittsfield — There is finally hope for tens of thousands of exasperated Berkshire County television watchers who could care less about Andrew Cuomo or the latest scandal in the New York State Assembly.

Sen. Ed Markey came to Pittsfield City Hall Friday (Sept. 28) to announce that he and his colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren are introducing legislation in Washington that would restore some Massachusetts channels to the Charter-Spectrum cable lineup in Berkshire County. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield is introducing similar legislation in the House of Representatives. All three are Democrats.

“The lack of access is unacceptable and it makes no sense,” Markey told the 50 media members and public officials who had assembled in the city council chambers. “In the Berkshires, we want to watch Red Sox home runs at Fenway, not Yankee strikeouts in the Bronx.”

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, gently reminded Markey that there actually are a lot of Yankees fans in Berkshire County.

See video below of Sen. Ed Markey’s news conference today at Pittsfield City Hall:

Markey quickly added that lack of access to the two Bay State stations that were dropped over the last few years is “fundamentally a matter of civic engagement.”

“Now more than ever, Berkshire County residents need to be informed about their communities and the Commonwealth,” Markey said. “They deserve to learn the latest news from the Massachusetts statehouse, and what the legislature is doing.”

Rep William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, D-Lenox, supporting legislation that would compel Charter-Spectrum to include Massachusetts channels in its Berkshires cable lineup. Joining him are, from left, Rep. John Barrett III, D-North-Adams; Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer; Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts; and North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The excuse was always the DMAs,” explained Pignatelli, who was one of several Berkshire County lawmakers on hand to show support. “We’ve been fighting this battle for along time.”

Indeed, Berkshire County is in the Albany designated market area, as the FCC calls local television markets. The decision to place the Berkshires in the Albany DMA was made before cable when most people watched television channels that broadcast over the air.

At issue is the fact that Charter recently dropped WCVB, an ABC affiliate in Boston, from its Berkshire County lineup. That move followed the company’s decision last year to stop carrying WWLP in Springfield, an NBC affiliate.

That left Charter subscribers with few options for television coverage of state news. The Albany stations rarely feature news in Berkshire County, and almost never cover anything from the State House in Boston, where the state’s lawmakers work—and the sausage gets made.

Charter is required to carry broadcast network affiliates (e.g. ABC, CBS, NBC) on its cable systems, but only those that are in television market of the cable franchise. For decades, Time Warner, which was acquired by Charter in 2016 for $65 billion, also carried select network affiliates from Springfield, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut.

Berkshire County is closer as the crow flies to Albany than to Springfield, and Albany channels can theoretically be watched without cable. Bennington County, Vermont, faces a similar problem since it is closer to Albany than to Burlington.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, tells the audience at a September press conference that the inclusion of Massachusetts channels in Charter-Spectrum’s Berkshires cable lineup is ‘fundamentally a matter of civic engagement.’ Photo: Terry Cowgill

Markey did not bring copies of the legislation to the news conference but his office later sent out a press release summarizing it and included a link to the bill itself. Click here to read the news release and click here to view the text of the Senate legislation.

Specifically, the bill “authorizes” a cable operator—in this case, Charter—”to transmit any station that was retransmitted to viewers on December 1, 2016,” when the company still carried the two channels in question, to subscribers in the Albany DMA.

But the word “authorizes” appears to be deceiving because Markey says the bill actually “forces [emphasis added] Charter and the stations to negotiate carriage.” In addition, the bill would preserve Berkshire County residents’ access to Albany stations that “provide relevant weather updates and important emergency information.”

“Under our legislation, Charter can no longer shrug its shoulders and maintain the status quo,” Markey continued. “The bill tells Charter, ‘You can no longer sit on the sidelines and leave Berkshire County viewers hanging.'”

But Charter has typically resisted such requests on economic grounds. At a June meeting of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee in Lenox, audience members wondered why both WCVB and WWLP could not be kept on the channel lineup along with the Albany stations.

Charter representative Melinda Kinney told them it did not make economic sense for the company to keep channels in the lineup that offered mostly “duplicative programming.” At that time Markey had just announced his intention to file the legislation.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer speaking Sept. 28 in favor of legislation to return Massachusetts channels to the Charter-Spectrum cable lineup. To her left are Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The anger among public officials at Pittsfield City Hall was palpable. Mayor Linda Tyer said city residents “are frustrated and … downright angry … at Charter’s total disregard” for their preferences.

“We love our neighbors in New York, but we are citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and we deserve to know what’s happening in our state capital,” Tyer said. “We have been working with Charter to hold them accountable for a contract that they have with us and the city of Pittsfield.”

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said senior citizens are hardest hit by the absence of the two Bay State channels. She complained that Charter cared more about “CEO salaries” and “shareholder revenues” than consumers.

“It’s frustrating to hear story after story of individuals, and I can tell you it is chiefly the elderly who are being impacted by this,” Farley-Bouvier said, adding that consumers are forced to pay “outrageous costs.”

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard noted the irony that WWLP, the NBC affiliate in Springfield, sent a camera crew to the news conference but coverage of it would not be available to Charter’s Berkshire County subscribers.

Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, center, speaking in favor of legislation that would force Charter-Spectrum to add Massachusetts channels to its Berkshire County lineup. Also present at the Sept. 28 event were, from left, Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, D-Lenox; Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts; and North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard. Photo: Terry Cowgill

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, traced much of the ill will toward Charter to last year when the company forced basic cable customers to rent set-top boxes. Indeed, the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee considered taking Charter to court over the company’s insistence that those subscribers rent new set-top de-encryption boxes from the company. And Barrett didn’t stop there:

“It’s intolerable to think that their stock in the last year went from $190 to $312, and yet they are dropping stations, dropping their [own] costs and increasing costs to consumers.”

Bernard said “the issue of market modification is important because it shows a crack in Charter-Spectrum’s facade. He complained about poor service and a “lack of responsiveness” amid increasing rates and little competition.

“We have a deferred maintenance problem in our system,” Bernard said. “Charter doesn’t address them until something is broken. There is no proactive investment.”

Barrett added that: “We need competition not only in cable television but internet service that goes along with it. Our young people know it’s all about streaming. But [Charter] controls both markets. It’s something that has to be addressed.”

Another impetus for Markey’s move might have been when, earlier this year, the Berkshire County legislative delegation, led by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-PIttsfield, started an online petition demanding from Charter “access to Massachusetts news and sports!” As of today, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition. Also involved in the effort were Barrett, Farley-Bouvier, Pignatelli and state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

Linda Miller, center, chair of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee at a December 2017 meeting. To her right is member Steven Moritz of Lee and to her left is Rene Wood of Sheffield. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In an interview, Linda Miller, who chairs the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee, said she has not yet had a chance to review the proposed legislation but, from what she has heard of it, she supports it.

“A solution that gives us the stations that we need to be informed and advertising that’s pertinent to our location is the most important part,” Miller said. “We just need to be informed and treated like we’re not stepchildren of Massachusetts or New York.”

Markey did not yet have a timeline for when he planned to introduce the legislation but he promised to keep his constituents and the news media updated.

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