West Virginia PBS and West Virginia Public Radio are operated by the same agency, the Educational Broadcasting Authority.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting worked out an agreement with Comcast, so that the cable company would carry its digital and High Definition signals, but customers are upset because it requires buying a new TV or renting special equipment from the cable company.
Joe Hartman lives in Morgantown and is a regular West Virginia PBS viewer. But that changed a couple of weeks ago when he flipped on channel 8 and the screen was just snow; there was no picture. A day or so later, he did the same thing and got the same result, so that’s when he started making calls.
“From what I understand from a conversation with Comcast, I have to change my tier, the package I subscribe too and that in theory won’t cost me any more money, but they give you a cable box for 12 months for free,” said Hartman.
“After that you have to pay for the cable box. If you have multiple televisions you have to pay extra for each cable box. In my case we got West Virginia PBS sort of for free or as part of our primary cable and we don’t anymore.”
Comcast spokesman, Bob Grove, says cable customers need a digital converter box to view West Virginia PBS because of a new agreement between Comcast and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
“They wanted to get their HD programming out there, they wanted to get WNPB2 out there, so they wanted their signal to be delivered digitally,” said Grove.
“We supported that decision. It’s a digital world these days, as we said you get a superior picture with digital. For those folks who do not have a converter box but want to continue to see WNPB, they just need to call 1-800-COMCAST. For 12 months they get a free box.”
But Dennis Adkins, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Executive Director, says the organization had no idea that so many viewers would lose West Virginia PBS under this agreement.
In a statement, Adkins wrote: “we were not aware that Comcast customers would be required to have special equipment or of the significant number of Comcast subscribers who would not have the appropriate equipment to take advantage of this expanded service.”
Amy Johns is one of those Comcast customers that lost West Virginia PBS. She also produces the weekly West Virginia PBS show, “Doctors on Call.”
“West Virginia PBS provides fantastic programming that is relevant to the people of West Virginia,” said Johns. “We pay for it through our tax dollars, we pay for it through private donations and now many of us can’t see it and that’s not right”
Johns suspects West Virginia PBS made this deal with Comcast to avoid being dropped in the Panhandle and Morgantown markets.
Morgantown viewers are in the Pittsburgh market, and Comcast is carrying the Pittsburgh public TV station’s digital signal without requiring viewers to get a special box.
“You know these designated market areas were set 30 and 40 years ago. It’s a new world now, and I think the people need to wake up and realize Morgantown is not a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Morgantown is in West Virginia,” Johns said.
Tuesday morning Comcast spokesman Bob Grove was on the local talk radio show, “Morgantown AM,” explaining the new arrangement when state Senator Michael Oliverio, D-Monongalia, called in.
“Bob is an excellent spokesperson. I can tell by the way he’s presenting this message this morning, but what I want Bob to become is a spokesperson for West Virginians,” Senator Oliverio said. “Bob, I want you to carry the message back to your management that this is an unacceptable solution.
"This idea of cutting 30 percent of our market off from our state’s public television station is unacceptable, and I want you to carry that message, Bob, as articulate as you have been this morning in trying to snow these West Virginians as to what your company is doing, I want you to carry that message back to your management and tell them that we think this is unacceptable.”
“Well, Senator, I will do that, but again, we don’t see it as cutting people off. We’re making it available to them at no cost,” Grove replied.
“You’re offering the poor, the elderly, the individuals least capable of affording expensive cable rates a free box that in 12 months from now you’ll be able to charge whatever you want,” Senator Oliverio said. “Let me give you a little history, Bob.
"In 1863 West Virginia became a separate state and we have our own public broadcasting system, and our citizens are entitled to receive that, and if Comcast wants to do business in our state, if they want to come before the Morgantown City Council and have their contract renewed, they need to offer West Virginians West Virginia public services.”
By the way, many satellite TV viewers can’t get West Virginia PBS either.
Some supporters of West Virginia PBS are urging Sen. Jay Rockefeller to support legislation that would require satellite and cable companies to provide their state’s PBS station as their local option. Rockefeller's office released the following statement:
"Senator Rockefeller believes that all West Virginians should have access to public television; he is looking in to this issue and exploring options that work for West Virginia families."
If Morgantown cable customers rent the digital converter box, they should get West Virginia PBS2 on channel 699 and West Virginia PBS in high definition on channel 712.
In Chester, Wheeling, Weirton and St. Clairsville, Ohio, WV PBS in high definition is on channel 219, and West Virginia PBS2 is on channel 203.
In Martinsburg and Jefferson County, West Virginia PBS in high definition is on channel 209, and West Virginia PBS2 is on channel 270.
If you have a new TV, it should have a digital tuner, which would make the digital converter box unnecessary. Just make sure you select auto scan to pick up any new digital channels.