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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Nashua’s TV-13 hopes public support will convince Comcast to keep it the cable lineup

NASHUA – The clock is ticking on TV-13’s attempt to stay on basic cable, but the couple who are trying to resurrect the city’s hyper-local television channel remain hopeful.

As it stands, WYCN TV-13 will be removed from Comcast’s lineup in early September, despite a previous agreement that would have kept it in the lineup through 2015. Comcast says that agreement was rendered moot by a lack of local programming during interim ownership by Binnie Media, plus technical issues caused by the station’s lack of a digital transmitter. ...

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NASHUA – The clock is ticking on TV-13’s attempt to stay on basic cable, but the couple who are trying to resurrect the city’s hyper-local television channel remain hopeful.

As it stands, WYCN TV-13 will be removed from Comcast’s lineup in early September, despite a previous agreement that would have kept it in the lineup through 2015. Comcast says that agreement was rendered moot by a lack of local programming during interim ownership by Binnie Media, plus technical issues caused by the station’s lack of a digital transmitter.

Station managers Carolyn Choate and Gordon Jackson say their return to WYCN in May means the local programming they have produced since 1988 will soon be back, and that a digital transmitter will be online by October. They hope these improvements, bolstered by verbal support from many of the state’s elected officials and a growing chorus of backers in an online petition at Change.org, will convince Comcast to keep them.

“You can have a million channels, but if one of them doesn’t cover the people, places, events of your own neck of the woods, it’s for naught,” Choate said.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman confirmed Friday that the company’s position hasn’t changed, saying the agreement to carry WYCN through 2015 was never binding. Goodman said Comcast is evaluating what to do with the station’s spectrum if it’s dropped; the company has increasingly used its cable connections and spectrum to expand into non-television businesses such as high-speed Internet access and home security systems.

Local cable bills say TV-13 will be dropped around Sept. 3.

Choate said the station’s owner, Over The Air Broadcasting, is talking to Comcast.

Over The Air Broadcasting is owned by tech billionaire Michael Dell. The firm has bought a number of small TV stations in recent months. This has led to speculation, as reported in Forbes magazine and elsewhere, that it’s mainly interested in the station’s license to use part of the public airwaves, or spectrum, which may eventually be available for sale to cellphone companies.

Even if Comcast drops TV-13 from the lineup, the station won’t go away. When the digital transmitter turns on, the channel will broadcast over the air from a tower in Hudson, sending its signal north to Manchester and south almost to Boston.

But that would slash the channel’s potential audience, since relatively few people depend on antennas for their TV these days.

WYCN is a low-power station, a special category of federal broadcast license. It has been on local cable since it was provided by Warner Cable, before that company became Time Warner.

Choate said it faced a similar crisis some 15 years ago, but at that time, local support convinced the cable firm to keep them. The online petition launched last week at Change.org, is designed to do the same thing again.

There’s certainly no lack of support for the channel on the petition, which has scores of comments. Among those who have commented is Dick Gagnon,
operations manager for Nashua’s public access channel, which is funded by the cable company under the franchise agreement to provide coverage of local government and events – unlike TV-13, which is a private company.

“I really wanted people to understand: Just because the public access channel is here doesn’t mean there’s not a need for TV-13,”
Gagnon said Friday.

In his comment, he wrote: “We do not have a budget to hire the manpower to go out and cover local events. … TV13 is a local station that goes out with hired hands and gathers what is going on in and around Nashua. We have two different missions and both are very much needed for Nashua.”

Jackson and Choate have always been the public faces of the station. They operated for years with founder Robert Rines, who left the station to them in his will when he died.

In February 2012, they sold it to Binnie Media, the firm founded by businessman and former senatorial candidate Bill Binnie, which replaced all local content with syndicated or paid programming.

In May, Over the Air Broadcasting bought the station for $4 million, bringing back Jackson and Choate to reinstitute local coverage.

The firm also started the switch from current analog signals to digital, as virtually all stations did two years ago as part of a nationwide change.

Shortly afterward, however, Comcast announced it planned to drop the channel from its basic lineup, citing the analog problem.

Jackson said the station’s analog signal is picked up by the local “head end,” as major connections are known in the cable television industry, in Nashua, sent to the regional head end in Londonderry, when it’s compressed into MPEG format, then sent out to other head ends in Nashua and Peterborough to be added to local channel lineups.

“Their issue is that this is too much of a haul for them when they apparently need more bandwidth,” Jackson said.

Analog signals take up considerably more space on the spectrum than digital signals.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).