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Spectrum Cable Changes In Berkshire County Prompt Federal Response

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Massachusetts U.S. Senator Ed Markey is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to return the Berkshires to Massachusetts programming.

Earlier this month, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey announced that he would be taking action to return Massachusetts programming to the Berkshires.

“Essentially, the FCC has these market areas defined after Neilsen, and the Berkshires are considered an orphaned county because while we’re in Massachusetts, we’re in the Albany market," said Democratic state Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield. He says he’s been advocating for the change since he took office in 2016, meeting with Markey in D.C. to discuss strategy. “It really came to a head now that we have a second Massachusetts channel removed from cable systems here in the Berkshires.”

In 2016, Charter removed WWLP from Springfield from its Berkshires offerings —  and this month, Boston’s WCVB came off the dial as well. The cable giant declined to comment for this story, pointing WAMC to FCC requirements that cable companies carry in-market affiliates of the major networks. Hinds’ office claims that there is no rule prohibiting Charter from offering more than one.

Markey said in a statement that “Berkshire County residents deserve access to local Bay State television programming, including news from the state capital and Massachusetts sports coverage. I’ve called on Charter Spectrum to work with WCVB and WWLP to ensure that these channels are on the air, and I will also be introducing federal legislation that ensure [sic] Berkshire viewers can view Massachusetts specific programming.”

“Ultimately this is about civics," said Hinds. “We’re going into an election year where there are a lot of ballot initiatives, and folks out here in the Berkshires are learning about New York state political issues and not learning about the policy changes that will impact their lives when they're going to the ballot box.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Television markets are set up based on what are the predominant viewing patterns by the listeners in the community," said David Donovan, President of the New York State Broadcasters Association. He says Charter’s decision to drop the Massachusetts channels and the subsequent push for a change in federal law isn’t just a losing situation for the New York stations he represents. “When weather comes through, particularly severe storm warnings, your weather moves from west to east and will always come through New York before it hits the Berkshires. So I think the losers in this would be frankly the viewers.”

Donovan says he’s been in touch with Markey in an attempt to prevent the Albany stations from being frozen out of the Berkshires.

“The Berkshires I think represent roughly between 9 and 10 percent of all television households in the Albany market,” he told WAMC.

Donovan says it was Charter’s recent changes that upset a longstanding relationship.

“It was the decision by Spectrum to delete and eliminate the Massachusetts stations from its Berkshire cable systems that precipitated this whole issue," he said. "If they had kept the status quo, you would not be seeing this response from Mr. Markey.”

Berkshire complaints about Charter have been persistent in 2018. At public hearings in Pittsfield and North Adams, hundreds of customers came out to condemn the cable provider. Mayor Tom Bernard of North Adams told WAMC that Charter’s decision to move local public access channels from the teens to the 1300s is another issue that will emerge as the dialogue with the company continues.

“As we look at the contract, as we look at conditions where the company may have violated their obligations to the community, to the municipality, to the customers, it is around that change,” Bernard told WAMC.

He says the city is preparing a communication to the company about its policies in the North Adams market.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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