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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 01:03 am

Channel 8 goes blank for some WSEC viewers

Local PBS station goes digital; loses spot on cable lineup

Dr. Jerold Gruebel.

As of April 22, basic and standard Comcast cable subscribers found nothing but a blank screen on channel 8 — the former analog home of WSEC/PBS Springfield. The local station went digital, requiring patrons to sign up for digital cable service or install compatible equipment in order to view its programs.

Dr. Jerold Gruebel, the president and CEO of Network Knowledge, WSEC-TV’s parent company, didn’t decide on the sole switch to digital. He says Comcast, operating under a recent agreement between the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Association of Public Television Stations, made the decision for him.

According to the Public Television Digital Cable Carriage Agreement, cable providers commit to “carry up to four streams of free non-commercial digital broadcast programming from one public TV station in the market, in addition to its analog signal.” Brian Dietz, NCTA vice president of communications, says this means that public television can “multicast” their main channel, as well as subchannels with specialized programming.

Local cable providers that carry multiple public television stations must designate one as the primary Public Broadcasting Service affiliate. As outlined in the agreement, the primary station continues to transmit both analog and digital signals, while secondary stations transmit only digital.

Dietz points out that digital offers greater programming flexibility, while analog cable capacity is limited.

“Cable operators can’t carry every channel that exists,” he says. “They’re all competing for space.”

Comcast carries WSEC-TV, along with WILL-TV, based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and WEIU-TV, based in Charleston, in its Springfield-Decatur-Champaign market. Rich Ruggiero, the cable provider’s regional vice president of communications, says Comcast picked WILL-TV as the local primary PBS station because it already functioned in analog and digital formats across the entire market. WSEC-TV was available in Springfield and Decatur, but not in Champaign. WEIU-TV was only available in Champaign.

Comcast gave WSEC-TV the choice, Ruggiero says, to either keep its analog spot or transfer to digital. The local PBS affiliate went the digital route and can now multicast WSEC-TV; WSEC-Create, its how-to, travel and cooking channel; and WSEC-World, a global news and public affairs channel, across the Springfield-Decatur-Champaign market.

“We’re obviously committed to providing customers a tremendous amount of PBS content,” Ruggiero says. “This agreement allows us to do that.”

Gruebel has objected to his station’s secondary designation, arguing that WSEC-TV should be the primary station in Springfield, its city of license. He also says Comcast could multicast both WSEC-TV and WILL-TV in analog and digital formats. While his local PBS affiliate offers popular programming like Illinois Stories and Capitol View, the Champaign affiliate provides complementary university content.

“They don’t have to switch us with WILL-TV,” Gruebel says. “This is not a competition. They have the capacity to run both at the same time.”

Gruebel worries that many of his station’s 130,000 viewers — especially low-income and elderly — won’t have access to WSEC- TV’s digital channels without upgrading their cable package, buying a digital TV set or installing a cable box.

Ruggiero contends that most Springfield customers already subscribe to digital cable service and won’t notice the change. He can’t reveal local data, but says that 70 percent of Comcast customers nationally have digital access.

“If they’re Comcast customers and already have digital cable today, this will not affect them,” Ruggiero says. “Other than more channels.”

Comcast will provide free digital cable boxes for one year to customers who currently subscribe to basic or standard cable, but want access to WSEC-TV channels.

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