May 21, 2019
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Southern Maine customers ‘outraged’ by loss of Boston channel from cable TV package

Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly
Ken Morrison of York Beach is angry that his cable television package has dropped WCVB-TV out of Boston. “I am fit to be tied,” he said. “And I’m not alone. A lot of people are very upset about it.”

York Beach resident Ken Morrison remembers the day earlier this month when he turned on the TV to watch the morning program on WCVB-TV Channel 5 in Boston. Instead of seeing his favorite television personalities, he saw the message “Programming on this network is no longer available.”

It was the last straw for Morrison, who said he’s already paying through the teeth for cable service through Spectrum. And he has made it his personal mission to garner as much support from the community and beyond as he can to get the telecommunications giant to once again offer that channel.

“I am fit to be tied,” he said. “And I’m not alone. A lot of people are very upset about it.”

According to Andrew Russell, Spectrum director of communications for the Northeast, Spectrum ceased carrying Channel 5, an ABC affiliate that is part of the Boston market, as of June 5.

“York is part of the Portland TV market and we carry the designated in-market ABC affiliate, WMTW. We no longer carry the out-of-market ABC affiliate,” he said.

He declined to elaborate further and WCVB declined comment for this story. Cable companies must carry one affiliate of broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in their markets, but there is no FCC rule that prohibits them from offering more than one.

The Maine congressional delegation indicated this week that they are investigating the situation. And state Reps. Lydia Blume and Patricia Hymanson of York are writing a letter to Spectrum either trying to get it to reinstate Channel 5 or reduce the cost of service to customers.

The change affects Spectrum towns throughout York County, including Biddeford, Saco, Wells, Ogunquit, South Berwick and Old Orchard Beach. Blume and Hymanson said they are reaching out to their colleagues in those town to sign the letter as well.

Morrison has been active on several local Facebook pages, including York Community Dialogue where several residents expressed concern. Several said they work in Boston and rely on WCVB to provide weather and traffic advisories. “I bet they’re not going to reduce my monthly bill,” said one in response.

York resident Frank Dehler, a librarian at the York Public Library, said he is a regular viewer of WCVB “for news, sports, weather, Chronicle, the New England Patriots coverage, etc. as I think many York residents are,” he said. “I am outraged by the cancellation.”

Morrison said Channel 5 “is the channel of the household. We watch it every day, multiple times a day,” he said. “Many people in the York area commute to Boston. The traffic reports on Channel 5 are essential.” WCVB was also the last Boston channel that could be accessed through Spectrum. Channels 4 and 7 have already been discontinued.

In his quest to find answers, Morrison spoke with Town Manager Steve Burns, who said the town’s hands are essentially tied.

“We have a contract right now with Spectrum that goes through 2022,” Burns said. “It just renews unless we want to negotiate. But negotiate how? Comcast is not going to come in and compete with Spectrum. They divie up the territory. And there’s no one else.”

Burns said the town gets $200,000 a year from Spectrum in franchise fees.

“A portion of the money they make from cable gets paid to the town as non-property tax revenue,” he said. “York could deal with the $200,000 but then what? That’s the problem with a lack of competition. You don’t have to treat people well. Spectrum is very good at what they do, they’re just not good at dealing with people.”

The smart thing would have been to ask customers in advance of pulling the plug, he added. “A lot of people who live here are from the Boston market.”

He said when he started receiving complaints about Chanel 5, one caller told him he is listed on the bill as “franchise administrator” for the town. “But it doesn’t mean anything. We have no authority. They decide the programming and the fees. I don’t think we’re important to them.”

At one point not long ago when people were complaining about the cost of Spectrum service, several suggested the town consider establishing its own cable system. But Burns said the town has no expertise in this area and it would require an entire operation to do that.

“That’s not something we can do,” he said.

Morrison wonders why the town couldn’t “at least call or send a letter” on behalf of York residents. “The town has no input? Really? What good does it do us now if the contract renews in 2022? I’m disappointed. The town might have influence.”

In the meantime, Spectrum provided him with a channel request form. The day he put the link on York Community Dialogue, dozens of people reported they had filled it out.

In their letter, Hymanson and Blume said they are “very disappointed” in Spectrum’s decision.

“We realize that (parent company) Charter Communication is operating within the letter of the law in their decision to drop this channel and that both the town of York and the state have no authority to compel Charter to carry it. But we question the wisdom of this choice,” they wrote.

“There’s a fine line between making sound business decisions and taking advantage of a monopoly situation to maximize profits at the expense of customers, (and this situation) is close to that line,” they wrote. If Charter does decide to follow through with its decision it “seems only fair” that it reduce the fee charged to customers.

When WCVB was pulled from western Massachusetts stations by Spectrum, U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal wrote to the leaders of Charter and Hearst Television, parent company of WCVB, urging them to keep the Boston channel in the Berkshires.

Jeff Sobotko of U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office said on Monday “it would be accurate to report” that King, Sen. Susan Collins as well as Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, “have reached out to Spectrum to request more information on this development and will be monitoring the situation.”

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