Public Broadcasters Losing Viewers Due to Cable Headend Consolidation

(Image credit: PBS)

WASHINGTON—Public broadcasters are urging the FCC to consider its unique position in the U.S. broadcasting environment when it comes to using DMA data to determine “must carry” status, warning the commission that the consolidation of cable headends is threatening public broadcasters’ obligations to serve the viewing public. 

In comments filed with the FCC this week, America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) and PBS filed reply comments in connection with the commission’s consideration of new rules in determining a television station’s designated market area (DMA).

Noncommercial TV stations can qualify for must-carry status if the MVPD’s headend is within the station’s contour or located within 50 miles of the station’s community of license “reference point.” Because of their unique requirements to provide statewide coverage, some public broadcast stations are often purposefully sited in counties far from any other broadcasters (that happen to be at the edges of DMAs) in order to ensure over-the-air service to all viewers throughout the state.

Since the Cable Act of 1992, technology advances have allowed cable operators to carry many more signals per headend, allowing them to consolidate into fewer headends. This can harm the ability of public broadcasters to maintain must-carry status, the groups told the FCC.

“Cable operators today can serve far more systems from a single headend than in 1992. 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 (i.e., a location with respect to which the station may no longer qualify for “must carry”). This can result in cable subscribers losing access to their local public TV stations,” they told the commission.

APTS and PBS said numerous examples of this issue have popped up around the country, citing one example along the area where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia border each other.  

“WNEO(TV), Alliance, Ohio (“WNEO”) provides PBS programming to viewers in northeastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and northern West Virginia. Earlier this year, a cable operator informed WNEO that its signal would no longer be carried on four western Pennsylvania cable systems that had carried the station for decades because of ‘the consolidation of the cable systems’ headend operations’ into a headend located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

“As a result of the change, the cable operator explained in a letter, ‘WNEO 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 [its] subscribers in the Pittsburgh Designated Market Area.’ As a result of these changes (which were solely within the cable operator’s control), WNEO can no longer rely on carriage on cable systems serving approximately 22,000 viewers who live within its over-the-air service contour,” they said in their filing. 

The groups also told the commission that because of rule changes imposed in 2019, public broadcast licensees are no longer required to elect carriage on DBS providers on a triennial basis; instead, carriage requests are considered “evergreen” once they are placed in a station’s online public inspection file and e-mailed to a DBS provider. 

Nevertheless, they said, triennial DMA information is relevant to noncommercial stations located in counties that may be reassigned to a different DMA from one carriage cycle to another. 

“Such stations would be entitled to seek DBS carriage in their new DMAs and, similarly, could lose carriage rights in their old DMAs upon the commencement of a new triennial cycle. Therefore, these stations currently must acquire DMA assignment data every three years in order to protect their statutory satellite carriage rights. PTV is presently exploring options for addressing this important issue so that public television stations in impacted counties can safeguard their scarce resources while serving their local communities.”

APTS and PBS offered three suggestions for the commission when considering new must carry rules for public broadcasters. 

“First, the Commission should recognize the significant burden of DMA changes imposed on noncommercial educational (NCE) stations. Second, the Commission should take note of the cumulative impact that Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (MVPD) headend consolidation has had (and could continue to have) in reducing the public’s access to noncommercial educational stations. Third, the Commission should consider ways to encourage Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) carriage of statewide public television licensees throughout their entire state, including in “orphan” counties, because DBS operators have made little to no progress in public television statewide carriage in the past decade.”

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.