NBC Universal, a subsidiary of Comcast, recently announced it will end its relationship with Boston’s WHDH-TV Channel 7 and substitute a network-owned station beginning in 2017. This change could have a major negative effect on households on Cape Cod and in Southeastern Massachusetts that now receive NBC network programming over the air using antennas, or may desire to in the future. Regional government representatives and community organizations need to understand the potential impact of the NBC change and attempt to influence the outcome.
Sunbeam Television Corp. owns WHDH. President Ed Ansin has said he intends to contest the change with the Federal Communications Commission. Ansin’s argument appears to be that Comcast made commitments as part of its FCC-approved purchase of NBC Universal. He may argue that if Comcast uses NBC-owned WNEU-TV Channel 60 in southern New Hampshire to replace WHDH, with the signal reaching half the audience, this may violate commitments Comcast made before the FCC.
Ansin is reported to have met with U.S. Sen. Edward Markey to argue that the change is contrary to the public interest, as well. Markey’s office released a statement saying that as a longtime supporter of universal service and free, over-the-air local broadcasting, Sen. Markey intends to closely scrutinize the impacts any deal could have on viewers in Massachusetts.
In an email to WHDH News, NBC Universal said it is committed to expanding its over-the-air coverage of the market and is looking at a variety of options to accomplish that. NBC has a number of ways to reach the same audience or an even larger audience, and simultaneously thwart a Sunbeam protest before the FCC. NBC may purchase a more powerful station than WNEU in the Boston area. Another option, which could serve Southeast Massachusetts, would entail its taking advantage of its right to create translator or rebroadcast sites on Cape Cod and in Southeastern Massachusetts. With such a strategy, the over-the-air audience could be larger than that currently reached by WHDH.
“Cord cutting” is a major trend. Consumers are canceling their cable and satellite subscription service and substituting over-the-air reception of network television broadcasts and over-the-top streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu for video using broadband.
Over a million people canceled their cable or satellite TV subscriptions in the past year. True, the industry has 100 million subscribers; but pay TV declined for the first time in the first quarter of 2015 and, according to Digitalsmiths, 8.2 percent of cable subscribers had cut the cord in 2014, an 18 increase over the prior year. This past fall Goldman Sachs downgraded several media companies, in large part because of this trend.
Over-the-air broadcasting plays a significant role in the decision to cut the cord for many. Nielsen reported at the end of 2014 that the number of broadband homes using over-the-air signals for TV had risen from 5.6 million to 6.1 million from the previous year. Other polling indicates the trend is accelerating, particularly among millennials.
Gov. Charlie Baker, U.S. Reps. Bill Keating and Joseph Kennedy, state Sen. Benjamin Downing and the legislators of Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts should join with Sen. Markey on this issue on behalf of their constituents and prevail upon the FCC to demand a plan from NBC that shows the broadcast signal will reach as many or more Massachusetts residents before the FCC approves the change.