Pubcasters ask FCC for help with boosting cable, satellite carriage

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PBS and America’s Public Television Stations are asking the FCC to consider how the agency can help noncommercial stations overcome barriers that are limiting viewers’ access to their channels on cable and satellite services.

In comments filed Sept. 26, PBS and APTS weighed in on the FCC’s efforts to change how it defines designated market areas for TV stations. The issue stems from ratings giant Nielsen notifying the FCC last year that it would stop publishing its annual Station Index Directory, which it has historically used in combination with household estimates to help determine a TV station’s DMA for cable-carriage rights.

In a July notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC said that it had tentatively concluded it should shift to using Nielsen’s monthly Local TV Station Information Report to determine station DMAs. If the proposal were to pass in its current form, the FCC would drop household estimates from its analysis and likely use only October’s monthly report to configure carriage rights.

In their comments, APTS and PBS told the FCC that the agency should consider how changes to determining DMAs for must-carry rights could burden noncommercial stations. They also took the chance to detail how cable operators have made it harder for the public to access public television.

“The FCC’s notice was really directed to Nielsen data and DMA determination, and that mostly impacts commercial stations, but we felt it was important for us to use this NPRM to bring to the commission the issues that we have,” said Lonna Thompson, EVP, COO and general counsel for APTS, who co-wrote the public comments. Raising the concerns before the FCC can also help bring the message to more cable operators and satellite providers, Thompson said.

Among the top concerns are cable operators consolidating headends — the facilities where they receive TV signals — into fewer locations, reducing public access to public TV programs. A noncommercial station can qualify as must-carry only if a headend is located either within its service contour or within 50 miles from the coordinates defining a television market, known as the “community of license reference point.” Many public TV stations and state networks have been adversely affected because their facilities are at the edges of DMAs to better serve audiences.

The 50-mile rule is “outdated,” Thompson said. It was enacted in 1992, and APTS and PBS said in their FCC comments that cable operators can now serve more audiences with fewer headends.

“While headend consolidation may well result in cost efficiencies for cable operators, it can disrupt long-stable viewer access to noncommercial stations when a headend is moved to a location beyond a station’s contour and more than 50 miles from its community of license reference point,” they said.

APTS and PBS cited the example of KTWU in Topeka, Kan., a public TV station that had a dispute with Comcast over headend consolidation in 2020 before both parties requested that their complaints be dismissed. In addition, a cable operator notified Georgia Public Broadcasting earlier this year that it would stop carrying the network’s signal due to headend consolidation, which could lead to 2,200 Georgia residents losing access to public TV.

Similarly, a cable operator told PBS Western Reserve in Kent, Ohio, that because of a headend being consolidated into Pittsburgh, it would drop the station from four western Pennsylvania cable systems that had carried it for decades. As a result of the change, the cable operator explained in a letter that PBS Western Reserve “is no longer a ‘qualified local noncommercial educational television station’ with respect to each of these cable systems.”

The cable operator noted that these “operational changes” were made to better serve subscribers in the Pittsburgh DMA. As a result, APTS said, PBS Western Reserve “can no longer rely on carriage on cable systems serving approximately 22,000 viewers who live within its over-the-air service contour.” After discussions with PBS Western Reserve, the cable operator agreed to provide a standard definition version of the station’s primary channel on an interim basis to viewers served by two of the four affected cable systems.

“We are concerned about the many PBS Western Reserve viewers and members who will be affected by this,” the station said in a statement to Current. “Ultimately, our hope is that no one in western Pennsylvania will be left without the benefits of a great PBS resource. Our plan is to share with them other ways besides cable that they can continue to receive PBS Western Reserve.”

Thompson said that in the face of continued headend consolidation, a potential solution would be to have stations use fiber to reach more distant headends. But fiber is expensive. “In some cases, the stations are willing to pay for fiber, and we’ve been able to talk the cable company into accepting the signal that way,” she said. However, using fiber is “not in the letter of the law,” she said, so FCC rules would need to be changed to make cable operators cooperate with the proposed compromise.

APTS and PBS also asked the FCC to recognize that state networks still lack adequate direct broadcast satellite carriage. In their comments, they noted that DBS providers don’t deliver WyomingPBS to 77% of Wyoming households. In West Virginia, 38.5% of households lack DBS access to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and roughly a third of Nebraskans, primarily in the western regions of the state, have no access to Nebraska Public Media.

The pubcasters asked the FCC to “begin a dialogue with public television and DBS operators to explore creative and effective solutions to the unavailability of local public TV licensee statewide signals.”

In Oklahoma, about 15% of the state can’t get a satellite TV signal from the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority. That affected how the network reached audiences when schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Executive Director Polly Anderson. OETA replaced its World Channel feed with K-12 educational programming as part of its At-Home Learning Initiative, but the channel wasn’t accessible to many people in the area.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve put it on our main channel,” Anderson said, adding that continued satellite signal gaps in the state are limiting awareness of OETA’s subchannels.

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