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Orphaned County Wanting Maryland TV Access

During the May 4, 2020 public meeting, the Board of Garrett County Commissioners sided with public input that the television market modification process should be pursued if, and only if, Maryland channels could be added without removing Pittsburgh market channels. In order to fully consider the next steps for a market modification, the County has sought the assistance of FCC (Federal Communications Commission) attorneys, MD Congressional delegation, the FCC itself, and the Maryland DC and Delaware Broadcasters Association. Garrett County is unique in Maryland because, while it is a political subdivision of the State of Maryland, it is part of the designated market area for Pittsburgh, PA. As a result, its satellite broadcast of local stations emanates from Pittsburgh. In this situation, Garrett County is known as an orphan county; a county that, as a result of the structure of a local satellite market, is served mostly by television stations coming from a neighboring state. Changing from one market area to another is no simple process; it requires counties wishing to obtain satellite broadcasts from Maryland stations to fashion a petition for modification of the existing Designated Market Area (“DMA”) and file this petition with the FCC. When Congress passed the STELA (Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act) Reauthorization Act of 2014, it provided a means by which the FCC is able to add or delete communities from a commercial broadcast television station’s local DMA. Note, before submitting a petition, the orphan county must be able to demonstrate that the proposed modifications are both “technically and economically feasible.”  The petitioners would have to decide what channels they are seeking to add and would be tasked with demonstrating why their choice is the most appropriate. This difficult choice is compounded since in the DMA for Maryland (except for Garrett County) is served by both the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore stations.  Once the feasibility is completed, the next step of the petitioner is to demonstrate support for the petition by satisfying factors outlined in the Reauthorization Act.  The petitioners must be able to assemble information that can only be obtained by retaining experts in this field, by securing evaluations of DMA areas, by making inquiries and assessment of the extent to which the existing channels will resist the petition or that the requested channels support the petition, as well as hiring attorneys who have the expertise and experience practicing before the FCC. 

As a summary, a market modification will only be considered if: A petition is filed with the FCC containing the following metrics for technical and economic feasibility (and specifics below)

  • Have the requested stations been historically carried on the cable or satellite systems?

  • Does the television station provide coverage or other local service to a community?

  • Would modification promote access to television broadcast station signals that originated in the consumer’s state of residence?

  • Do any other television stations fulfill news coverage or sporting events of interest to the community?

  • Provide evidence of viewing patterns in households that subscribe and do not subscribe to the services offered by multichannel video programming distributors within the areas served by such multichannel video programming distributors in the community.

Other rural communities who have gone through this process, suggest that existing television broadcast stations do not willingly give up control within their existing DMA. A recent review of counties who have successfully navigated the orphan county modification process reveals that even years later they still are not receiving “local” in-state broadcasts.  Costs associated with the process outlined are not inconsequential. A significant portion of the costs are associated with the application process, retention of experts, generation of market data studies and reports to satisfy the conditions and issues that the Act imposes, and the hiring of experienced FCC attorneys to represent the petitioners. Lastly, even if a petition is approved by the FCC, it is subject to challenge by the broadcasters in the existing DMA. At the same time, local stations in MD only control their “local” original programming such as news broadcasts and cannot control network affiliated broadcasts. What is broadcast and to whom is further influenced by existing contractual relationships such as those with major sports leagues. Chairman Paul Edwards stated that “In light of the recent COVID-19 statewide directives, the Board absolutely understands the impact of a lack of Maryland programming. That said, we have to be prudent in allocating the budget and pursue opportunities that have a solid return.” As part of the research process leading to a potential modification, the County has been in contact with our Federal representatives and will continue to investigate the next steps.

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