KTWU’s licensee urges FCC to strengthen cable carriage protections for noncommercial stations

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The university licensee for KTWU has filed a complaint against Comcast of Missouri LLC, alleging that the company violated FCC cable carriage rules by threatening to drop the public TV station from its channel lineup.

The licensee, Washburn University of Topeka in Kansas, says Comcast pursued “a concerted strategy designed to justify discontinuation” of KTWU’s cable carriage in Olathe, Kan., and surrounding communities by making “bogus” complaints that the station’s signal was unreliable. The cable operator later moved to decommission the principal headend for the Olathe cable system, which has transmitted KTWU’s programming since at least 1981.

“Initially, Comcast raised unfounded claims of intermittent signal problems and conducted signal tests blatantly at odds with the procedures established by the FCC, coupled with numerous threats to drop KTWU if it failed to deliver a good quality signal,” KTWU’s licensee says in its complaint. “At each step, KTWU responded promptly with constructive suggestions that might improve the reception at the Comcast headend.”

KTWU says its continued carriage on the cable system is protected by grandfather provisions in FCC rules.

When Comcast later notified the station of its decision to replace the Olathe headend with a new facility in Independence, Mo., KTWU offered to deliver its signal via IP stream. Comcast rejected the offer.

The headend in Independence is a site outside of the 50-mile radius that guarantees KTWU’s carriage.

For cable subscribers in Olathe and surrounding communities, Comcast’s decision to drop KTWU would end their access to the only Kansas PBS station in the channel lineup, KTWU notes in the complaint. The station produces several original local programs, including Sunflower Journeys, a weekly travelogue series about Kansas; I’ve Got Issues, a community affairs show; Working Capital, which covers regional businesses; and Theatre of the Mind, a series of 1940s-style radio dramas performed live on television by actors and sound technicians. 

‘Strong-arm tactics’ by cable operators

In its complaint, KTWU urges the commission to order Comcast of Missouri to maintain carriage of the station. Pointing to a broader problem with must-carry enforcement, it also asks the FCC to clarify its rules for principal headend relocations that jeopardize carriage of NCE stations.

The complaint describes technological and marketplace changes that have made the rules defining principal headends ineffective. 

Cable systems designated their principal headends in 1993, the complaint says, when most local broadcasters delivered their signals over-the-air. Today, most broadcasters use high-speed fiber and internet connections to deliver their signals. As cable systems move to consolidate their headends, relocations that threaten the carriage protections are burdensome for NCE stations like KTWU, the complaint says.

FCC regulations prohibit changes to principal headends that “undermine or evade” a cable system’s must-carry requirements, yet the FCC has not reported any decisions on principal headend changes that reinforced the carriage rights of an NCE station, the complaint says.

“Accordingly, the lack of guidance regarding application of the ‘undermine or evade’ rule has only served to embolden cable operators to use strong-arm tactics to force NCE stations to capitulate to threats of discontinuation of carriage, similar to the conduct of Comcast in this case,” the complaint says.

“[B]ased on discussions with KTWU’s NCE colleagues, we understand that other public stations have faced similar bullying tactics, often being told that the most flimsy business justification is enough to support the ‘discretion’ for cable operators to relocate their headends at will, even if it results in trampling the carriage rights of NCE stations that lack the resources to take on the cable behemoths,” the complaint says.

Comcast of Missouri notified KTWU that it intended to cease carriage of the station by Jan. 21. Arthur Harding, the attorney from Foster Garvey who is representing the licensee, filed the complaint with the FCC Jan. 10. 

Harding and a representative of Comcast said Friday the two parties are discussing how to resolve the dispute.

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