Rant: TV DXing vs. cable channel availability

credit: stock.xchng
credit: stock.xchng

Disclaimer: This article is a rant and is only the opinion of the webmaster.  I have nothing against any television station, cable or satellite company mentioned in this article.  I am simply ranting about the disappearance of distant television stations over time and reminiscing about the past.

Although this isn’t exactly DX, I’ve noticed most of the television signals I receive via DX are not included on my local cable TV system.

Personally, I believe if a station can be regularly received via antenna, then it should be included on cable.  This means a cable company should be legally allowed to carry all broadcast signals within, say, a 60 to 80-mile radius of any locale.

At my home 19 miles SW of Washington DC, on my local Comcast cable I get the following Washington, DC TV stations:

-WRC 4 Washington (NBC)
-WTTG 5 Washington (FOX)
-WJLA 7 Washington (ABC)
-WUSA 9 Washington (CBS)
-WETA 26 Washington (PBS)
-WHUT 32 Washington (PBS)

I also get a third out-of-market PBS affiliate, WMPT 22 Annapolis, MD, as well as the local Washington CW, MyTV, Telemundo, Univision and UniMas affiliates.

Cable companies used to carry out-of-market broadcast signals, often some too far away to pick up with a regular antenna.  I do not know what my local cable company offered in the past, but I fondly remember channel surfing through multiple network feeds at a relative’s house in Shenandoah County, VA, near Harrisonburg.  In 1998, the local cable company in Shenandoah County, Shentel, carried the following broadcast affiliates:

credit: stock.xchng
credit: stock.xchng

WMAR 2 Baltimore (ABC)
WHSV 3 Harrisonburg (ABC)
WRC 4 Washington (NBC)
WTTG 5 Washington (FOX)
WJLA 7 Washington (ABC)
WUSA 9 Washington (CBS)
WBAL 11 Baltimore (CBS)
WJZ 13 Baltimore (CBS)
WHAG 25 Hagerstown (NBC)

I think WVIR 29 Charlottesville (NBC) was also included, but I can’t be for sure.  I’m also not sure if there were duplicate WB, PBS, Independent or UPN stations from markets other than Washington.  Shentel carried local WAZT 10 Woodstock (Ind.) and WVPY 42 Front Royal (PBS), too.

As Shenandoah County is on the far western outskirts of the Washington, DC DMA, it would be understandable for it to have several regional broadcast affiliates in the lineup, given there’s no technical local TV station within a 30 mile radius save for WHSV, WAZT and WVPY.  DC stations could be received occasionally via low power analog translators, but the main parent signals, at over 80 miles away and with mountains separating them from valley residents, likely never (or rarely) hit the Shentel viewership.  Baltimore, at over 110 miles away, was a surprise for me to be on the system.  However, as of 2013, the only signals that remain on the system is WHSV, WRC, WTTG and WUSA (they also carry the other major DC signals such as PBS, CW, etc. among others).  In the same area, Dish Network provides WJLA in lieu of WHSV and also includes WHAG with WRC for NBC service.

According to recent mailbag comments on DCRTV.com, Northern Virginia cable systems also carried the major Baltimore affiliates, at 40-60 miles away, up until the 1990s.  Now, they only carry WRC, WTTG, WJLA and WUSA (Dish Network also carries WHAG to all DC-area subscribers as previously mentioned) for the big four networks.

I understand broadcasting companies enact ‘significantly viewed’ FCC rules to protect the exclusivity of their station within a market for advertising and viewership purposes.  For example, if I was the owner of a TV station, I’d want everyone in my service area to watch the station, not watch another same-network affiliate 50 miles away.  But broadcasters need to be realistic.  If all it takes to receive a strong signal from any given station is to simply build an antenna and do a channel scan, then it should be available on cable.  Station owners cannot prohibit viewers from watching out-of-market stations via antenna if the signal is already in the air.

At the very least, cable companies should carry adjacent-market network affiliates within a certain radius but block all network programming as to not infringe on the local channel’s rights.  While vacationing in Ocean City, MD in 2001, I noticed their local cable system (I forgot the provider) carried WMAR and WJZ even though the town had same-networked local affiliates WMDT and WBOC, respectively.  However, whenever network programming that aired on WMDT or WBOC began, the distant signals were blocked and a slide asking viewers to turn to the local broadcast channels aired.  As expected, WMAR and WJZ are no longer carried on cable in Ocean CIty.

As mentioned before, I can pick up three PBS stations on my cable system, WETA, WHUR and WMPT.  Although they often air different programming, there are many times where they are airing the same PBS feed.  If I can switch between three network affiliates on cable in this instance, why can’t I do it for other networks?

credit: stock.xchng
credit: stock.xchng

I was a Dish Network subscriber from 2004-2008.  On a whim, I submitted waiver requests from all four major network stations.  The process, which Dish now outsources to a third party company due to legal issues, was set up to allow rural residents access to a more regional set of broadcast affiliates.  If the subscriber lived in an area without a local channel package, they automatically could subscribe to the distant network package, which carried major network broadcast stations from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Denver.

If the subscriber was qualified for a local set of affiliates, the local stations had to individually approve the waiver requests.  If approved, the subscriber would be able to watch up to two signals from every approved network from the following cities: New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago or Atlanta at the viewer’s choice.  If denied, the viewer was only able to pick up the local network broadcast affiliate on their system.  Local WJLA and WUSA denied my requests for ABC and CBS distant networks, but WTTG approved it, allowing me full access to FOX stations KTTV-Los Angeles and WNYW-New York as well as WTTG.  Local NBC station WRC initially denied my waiver request but approved a second request a year later, allowing me to receive KNBC-Los Angeles.  After Dish relinquished control of the distant networks to the third party company, I instead received FOX stations KTVU-Oakland, CA and WAGA-Atlanta.

I had full, completely legal access (local news, commercials, network programming, sports broadcasts, etc.) to these out-of-market stations that I would likely never, ever pick up via antenna at my home while living in suburban Washington, DC.  Yet I am not allowed to have a 24/7 HD feed of broadcast stations less than 100 miles away in the same state that I can often pick up with my antenna.  Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

Thankfully, many television stations are streaming their newscasts online for out-of-market viewers to watch.  So, I can often at least watch one station’s live newscasts from most major markets of my choice.  However, if it is so easy to watch local news from another network affiliate than my locals, why can’t it be included on an actual TV channel in full HD quality?  Given the nature of the broadcasting industry, internet broadcasts aren’t much different from television broadcasts these days.