Viewers Upset After Comcast Moves Maryland Public Television to Digital Tier

When Comcast shifted MPT to its digital tier, the cable provider added to its lineup MPT's Spanish-language channel V-me, which airs,
When Comcast shifted MPT to its digital tier, the cable provider added to its lineup MPT's Spanish-language channel V-me, which airs, "Plaza Sesamo."
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Message to cable companies: Don't mess with public TV. If you do, you'll hear about it.

For the past week, confused and angry viewers have flooded Comcast cable systems and Maryland Public Television (MPT) with calls and e-mails, all of them essentially imploring, "I want my MPT!" The inquiries and outrage came after Comcast moved the public broadcasting station from its "basic" lineup of channels to the digital tier on cable systems throughout the Washington area.

The problem: A lot of Comcast's customers don't subscribe to digital cable, and thus can no longer receive MPT. The only way to do so now is to get a digital converter box from Comcast, or install a pair of rabbit-ear antennas and pull it in over the air.

Neither Comcast nor MPT will say how many people have protested the change or called with questions, but the change affected tens of thousands of cable homes in Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick, Calvert and Charles counties in Maryland, as well as in the District, and Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William counties and Reston in Northern Virginia. "We've had quite a few calls," said MPT spokesman Michael Golden, declining to offer a specific count. "More than 'many.' "

Access to Washington area viewers is of critical importance to MPT, which is based in the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills, because local viewers are some of its largest pledge-drive contributors. Losing a portion of these viewers, and their donations, could hurt at a time when public broadcasters are under financial pressure.

Comcast said it moved MPT with the station's consent and cooperation. Since the cable company already offers its Washington area basic subscribers two other public TV stations, Arlington-based WETA and District-based WHUT, the Philadelphia-based cable giant decided to move MPT off basic, said Jaye Linnen, a Comcast spokeswoman. WETA and WHUT carry some, but not all, of the same PBS programs as MPT.

MPT didn't come away empty-handed. In addition to MPT's main channel, Comcast also added two other MPT offerings to its Washington area digital lineup, MPT-2 and V-me, a Spanish-language channel. "We think it's good for consumers of public broadcasting that they have more choice, and more programming to choose from than they had before," Golden said.

Comcast said it will offer digital converter boxes to anyone who still wants to watch MPT, but there's a slight catch. The boxes are free for a year; after that, customers will pay an additional $3.65 per month to rent the boxes.

The move appears to have caught many viewers by surprise. MPT announced the change in a press release dated April 14 -- the same day the switch was made. According to Golden, Comcast alerted viewers to the change in their monthly bills for the last two months.

Nevertheless, the whole episode infuriates Karen Travis, a Bethesda resident who has complained about the change to Comcast, MPT and local officials.

MPT "is an important disseminator of information" about state and local politics, Travis said. "I woke up one morning and suddenly one of those sources of information was snatched away from me. It's particularly galling that I now have to pay a corporate behemoth like Comcast for it."

What's more, as a Maryland resident, her taxes directly support MPT through state subsidies, she said. She's also contributed directly to MPT, but that could change: Travis said she's asked MPT for a refund.

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