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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Cable fights Broadcast TV over retransmission fees hits Corvallis

The business press has been covering the fight between a large Cable TV company, Comcast Cable, and a large broadcast TV owner, who are quibbling over how much each company should pay to retransmit the over-the-air TV signal to cable subscribers. This fight has hit Corvallis because the Portland, Oregon CBS TV affiliate KOIN TV has been blacked out on the Comcast Cable TV system. See the local newspaper story by Bennett Hall, "Benton County cable viewers lose KOIN-TV," Gazette-Times, May 27, 2017, p. A1-A2 posted May 26, 2017, which says, "KOIN is owned by Nexstar media group, an Irving, Texas-based company that owns or manages 171 stations, making it the largest television broadcaster in the country. Comcast, based in Philadelphia, is the nation's largest cable company. It also owns NBCUniversal, making it a major producer of feature films and television programs."

My low vision blindness has prevented me from researching the latest FCC regulations and laws, but at one time there was a "must carry rule" for cable TV providers that required cable TV systems to carry all of the local channels receivable over-the-air in a city. In Benton County where Corvallis, Oregon is located, this has always included the Eugene, Oregon TV stations that are 40 miles south of Corvallis. However, the Portland TV stations have always been carried by the Corvallis cable TV system even though Portland TV stations are 80 miles north of Corvallis and not easily receivable without a huge antenna system.

Portland TV stations became easy to receive over-the-air via an antenna a few years ago when several of the stations installed a tranlator near Corvallis. I do not know if the FCC "must carry" rules are still in effect, and if they are, I do not know if they apply to translators or not. Trump Republicans want to deregulate everything, and so I am not counting on anything.

In any case, Comcast in Corvallis has for some unstated reason continued carrying the Portland network affiliates, as they have been doing for at least 40 years, however, when the HDTV transition occurred a few years ago, Comast is kept carrying the Portland stations only in low-definition -- at first they were rebroadcasting the station's 3:4 aspect ratio picture with the sides of the 16:9 aspect ratio picture cut off, but more recently they have been letterboxing the HDTV picture into a 3:4 aspect ratio picture and then pillar boxing that back into a 16:9 aspect ratio picture -- the result on a normal HDTV set hooked up to cable is a low-definition 16:9 aspect ratio picture with a smaller 16:9 aspect ratio picture inset inside of black bars all the way around it. On my 32 inch diagonal HDTV set, the final picture comes out to be 26 inch diagonal and none of the TV set's zoom functions will blow up the picture to fill the screen, probably because the TV set designers never thought that anyone would be so stupid to broadcast a picture in this format! Comcast Cable is doing the worst of all worlds for picture quality.

Why is Comcast doing this? Assuming they are thinking, perhaps it has to do with lowering the amount of bandwidth on their cable so they can provide more of their other services. Perhaps it is to be compatible with their cheap, legally mandated, basic cable that is regulated by law and they assume all of these low-end customers still have old fashioned 3:4 aspect ratio TV sets.

I can understand the business fight over retransmission fees, but I can't understand why Comcast in Corvallis can't retransmit both the Eugene and Portland TV stations, in the new HDTV format. Also, what has happened to the must carry rules? Have Trump Republicans eliminated it by deregulation? Corvallis has always been on the fringes of reception for both Portland and Eugene, which is why cable TV has been popular here for decades -- it avoids the hassle of using a big antenna system.

In any case, I wrote the following letter to the editor hoping to get the attention of the right people who can answer my "must carry rule" question. I am also curious if the reason for the two Portland stations installing translators in Corvallis was to avoid having to haggle over retransmission fees? The business press has reported that both Comcast and major broacasters want to fight over these fees. Since all of this is speculation, I did not include it in the letter, but it would make sense because other explanations don't add up, such as owners of both Portland and Eugene Stations not wanting to compete with their own station in another city.

Bennett Hall's May 27 story, "Benton County Cable Viewers Lose KOIN-TV," reported the fight between a giant TV broadcaster and a giant cable TV provider.

I am surprised that KOIN-TV has not bypassed Comcast cable by installing a high-definition TV translator near Corvallis, as did two other Portland TV stations Channel 2 KATU and Channel 8 KGW, to provide over-the-air HDTV reception.

Corvallis Comcast only provides Eugene stations in HDTV, which is why I now watch 2 and 8 via an antenna and could easily cancel cable service if it fails to meet my expectations.

(Quoted from Thomas Kraemer, "Letter: KOIN could set up translator," Gazette-Times, Jun. 6, 2017, p. A8 posted Jun. 4, 2017)

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