“I think there is a lot of interest in Garrett County to receive some Maryland news," said Chairman Paul Edwards in the May 4 Zoom public meeting of the Garrett County Commissioners. He was responding to public input and a recent request by Engage Mountain Maryland, (EMM) to move the Garrett County viewing audience from Pittsburgh to Maryland television stations. In light of breaking news coming from Governor Larry Hogan's office with updates on the coronavirus, EMM was concerned that vital communication was only available through online news sources and social media platforms. Due to the county's limited access to broadband service and streaming capabilities, accessing news through television stations would reach more people and in a timely, efficient manner. In their previous meeting from April 21, the commissioners requested public comments to guide them on whether a majority of citizens would support switching viewing markets. "I think the overwhelming majority of the feedback we’ve received in the past two weeks…was they [citizens] really do not want to lose the Pittsburgh market for a variety of reasons — most notably, probably weather,” said Edwards. Edwards shared that the county’s attorney, Mark Getty, had contacted the Federal Communications Commission, (FCC) to see what a television market modification would entail. "The FCC does not require an application fee for such a request, but the process generally requires outside assistance — and that cost is significantly higher than the $10,000 that was estimated at the commissioners’ April 21 meeting," Edwards said.
EMM is researching those fee to see if there is a way to either reduce or eliminate the cost due to the current state of emergency in Maryland and the local state of emergency in Garrett County. Edwards went on to explain that even if the commissioners were to proceed, it would be premature to do so until it’s determined whether U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-Md., would be able to provide any feedback. As of the May 5 meeting, Congressman Trone already forwarded a response letter from the FCC Chair, Ajit Pai to Edwards that included guidance on the issue. Pai stated that certain parties can petition the FCC if they can show "specific statutory factors". In this case, these factors would include the need for access to press conferences with life-saving guidance, updates, and executive orders from the Governor's office pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress has specifically determined through the Communications Act which TV stations are considered "local" to a particular area and thus required to be carried by a cable or satellite provider. Garrett County constituents, according to Pai could have access to in-state signals under existing statutes and rules. He noted that local providers, Shentel and Somerfield Cable each carry the Maryland PBS station, WGPT (PBS) Oakland, Maryland. The satellite carriers could carry WGPT into Garrett County because the station is an in-market station, however, they are not required to do so. WGPT has a strong digital over-the-air signal in Garrett County, Pai points out, and should be viewable to residents with an over-the-air antenna. "Such petitions can be filed by a broadcaster, cable operator, or satellite provider," said Pai. "Or it can be filed by the county government in the case of a satellite market modification petition." Pai further explained that if the FCC grants a market modification petition, the additional commercial station signals can be carried as local stations with the consent of the station. This is good news for Garrett County and the commissioners who won't need to abandon the Pittsburgh channels they would like to keep, while adding Maryland channels requested by their constituents. Their obligation would be to file a satellite market modification petition with the FCC asking to be added to the markets for commercial TV stations otherwise serving the state of Maryland. Another option is for the Commissioners to contact Maryland broadcast stations and encourage them to file a cable and/or satellite market modification petition with the FCC. Earlier information suggested that Garrett County was limited to choose a single television market but with new technology, residents can have access to both for the asking. Once sporting events resume, Steelers fans can catch the games and sports coverage they're accustomed to while staying current on important Maryland issues – a unique aspect of living in a county situated between two major metropolitan markets. U.S. Rep. Trone has pledge his interest in assisting the Garrett County Commissioners in the petition process. As of May 4, he has already been in communication with the Maryland, D.C., and Delaware Broadcasters Association that outline a desire for Maryland television in Garrett County. A response is pending.