Tube Talk: The case of the disappearing PBS station

Thursday night I got a text from a friend asking why WHA, Madison’s PBS station, was missing from our lineup. I’d just watched it the day before, so I was stunned. After all, we’ve had both WTTW-Chicago and WHA-Madison as long as I can remember. While all PBS stations carry the same core programs, their supplemental and original programming are totally different. I watch both equally, and for very different reasons.

By Friday morning it was clear: there are a lot of ticked off Comcast subscribers in the Rockford area. Here’s a small sampling of what just a few had to say:

“I’m so frustrated with Comcast dropping WHA. Although WTTW is still on the lineup, WHA was my favorite. They have many shows that are not available anywhere else. I’ll miss Around the Corner, Wisconsin Life, Around the Farm Table, and Shetland. I will go online to Comcast and complain,” – Sue Bowers

“The woman from Madison’s PBS channel WHA suggested that I go out and buy an HD antenna to receive their channel. If I do that, I may just find that I can live without Comcast entirely,” – Mike Taphorn, who started a lengthy conversation on NextDoor.com about Comcast dropping WHA and encouraged people to contact both WHA and Comcast.

“I am extremely angry and disappointed that Comcast/Xfinity has dropped the Wisconsin Public Television station. I discovered this when I tuned in the watch a program on Thursday evening. All I got was a black screen saying that if I wanted to view PBS programming to tune to WTTW. No notification was given that I was aware of. Of course, the programs I watched on WPT aren’t carried on WTTW. I pay a lot of money for cable so watching programs om the laptop is not an option. Speaking of cost, it seems I’m paying for channels I can’t watch. Will I get a refund? Probably not,” – Bonnie McFadden

“I got a call back from Comcast, and she was very nice and explained that WPT did not renew its contract, but they apparently are still working on it. I also got a form letter type email from Jennifer in the VP’s office. A nice email, but she didn’t say much,” – Judy Cox

I have to admit, it was heartwarming to see and hear about so many local viewers proactively contacting both Comcast and WHA to express their disappointment and request that the channel is returned to our lineup as soon as possible.

I contacted Comcast through @ComcastCares on Twitter (it is always much faster than navigating their horrific phone system), and they had someone from their Executive Customer Relations Team call me back on Friday.

The guy who called me back didn’t have any specific information, other than they stopped carrying WHA in our market on September 27. He said it could be that WHA didn’t renew their agreement, but he also said it might be due to FCC regulations. He also said notification about the change was given on our bills, to which I said, “You mean the e-bills we don’t actually ever see?”

That’s when I contacted Jack Segal, Comcast’s Vice President of Communications for the Greater Chicago Region, asking for an official explanation of why we no longer receive WHA. He immediately replied, saying he’d get back to me by my deadline. This is his response:

“Xfinity carries Chicago’s PBS affiliate, WTTW-TV, in Rockford. The vast majority of WTTW’s and WHA’s programming schedules overlap, so Rockford customers are still able to enjoy their favorite PBS programs. Rockford residents who want to continue to watch WHA’s locally-produced content live or On Demand can visit www.wpt.org and click “Watch” on the home page,” Segal said in a statement to The Rock River Times.

Segal also noted that over the past year Comcast has added Newsy LIVE, Oxygen HD, Universal Kids HD, CSPAN HD and EPIX HD to our lineup.

I also reached out to Wisconsin Public Television (the home of WHA) for comment and was put in touch with their Director of Communication and Community Engagement, Michael Harryman. This is his response:

“Wisconsin Public Television (WPT), or WHA-TV in Madison, has not changed any aspect of our signal delivery as it affects Comcast or their ability to include the channels in their line-up. Wisconsin Public Television (WHA) is free, public access television network making its content available at no cost to anyone who can and is able to receive it via over-the-air broadcast, cable/satellite providers and through online services, we have not restricted this content from Comcast in Rockford.

“Wisconsin Public Television has not been approached by anyone from Comcast to discuss any aspect of their broadcast of our content, we would be delighted to provide this as we have for four decades; if Comcast wants to air WPT content, we’re totally fine with that. The FCC does have ‘must carry’ legislation requiring cable systems to carry at least one public or educational television service on its system, which Comcast seems to be in compliance with; outside of that we would have to suggest you reach out to the FCC directly and ask them, and your local Comcast leadership, why this service has been discontinued. WPT looks forward to serving our friends in Rockford again.”

If you’re unhappy with Comcast’s decision, please write, call, and email them – and also tag them in social media posts – and tell them why you want it back. I suggest including a side-by-side comparison of WHA and WTTW lineups so Comcast will see how different the two channels are, and why we need and deserve to have both channels. Rockford has supported both WHA and WTTW for well over 40 years, so in my opinion, this sudden decision to drop WHA is pretty hard for Comcast to defend.

However this ultimately shakes out, remember you can still watch WHA via over-the-air signal (but you might need a stronger antenna), livestreaming options at wpt.org, and on over-the-top devices like AppleTV and Roku. R.

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