About a year ago, I participated in a teleconference call with Juan Sepulveda, PBS Senior Vice President, Station Services, on the subject of keeping public broadcasting alive in the Rio Grande Valley.
The call was set up by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office and was off-the-record. Therefore, I cannot go into specific details about the conversation, but I can confirm that Sepulveda stated that he was fully committed to having PBS maintain a strong presence in the Valley.
Why could public broadcasting in the Valley be in doubt? Readers may recall that two years ago, KMBH-TV “flipped” its license from NCE (Non-Commercial Educational) to Commercial. At the time, the television station was being sold by RGV Educational Broadcasting, (the Diocese of Brownsville), to a myriad of collective entities now – and most recently – known as R Communications. However, KMBH, even after having attained commercial status, continued to hold pledge drives, looking for the general public for financial support.
Now, another obstacle has been thrown into the mix. A few weeks ago, R Communications decided to add Cozi TV, a Diginet service, (“classic” television reruns from decades past), whose feed originates in New York, to its primary digital sub-channel, 38.1. The result of this addition is that PBS has now been relegated to a secondary sub-channel, 38.2, and the Spanish language VME to 38.3.
In today’s broadcasting world, every television station now has digital channels in addition to their prime channel. While a station’s prime channel(s) are carried by cable and satellite providers under the FCC’s “Must Carry” law, most sub-channels are NOT carried by cable and satellite providers. (See: https://www.fcc.gov/media/cable-carriage-broadcast-stations).
In point of fact, with cable you have limited access to sub-channels, and typically, cable providers make them hard to find by placing them in the upper end of the channel range, (channels 500 and higher). Satellite providers are even less likely to carry sub-channels since they try to pack as many different stations onto the satellite and are limited as to how many they can carry.
To whit, a couple of weekends ago, Time-Warner and Direct TV have agreed to continue to carry PBS programming on another sub-channel, while DISH, to date, has not, leaving thousands of DISH subscribers in the Rio Grande Valley in the dark. The on-screen DISH menu now ONLY reflects the Cozi TV programming schedule on KMBH-TV.
Fans of PBS in the Valley who subscribe to DISH are obviously concerned. One of them, Charles Thompson, contacted me to ask, “PBS News With Gwen Ifill has been replaced by drivel. Is this the end of PBS programming delivery to the Rio Grande Valley?”
Perhaps R Communications timed its decision and initiated the change centered around Super Bowl weekend, theorizing that many viewers in the area would be too pre-occupied watching the Denver/Carolina game, and not Downton Abbey.
It should also be noted that while all digital sub-channels, (including High Definition sub-channels), are accessible over the air by a digital-ready television and a digital antenna, this equipment far exceeds the financial resources of most low-income residents of the Rio Grande Valley, especially families in the colonias who rely heavily on PBS to aid in the education of their children.
Unfortunately, KMBH, (once again), and R Communications failed to notify the general public of these changes; this is evident when one peruses the Schedule Tab on the KMBH website – it is blank, which only adds to the confusion.
Last month, PBS President Paula Kerger expressed concern over the upcoming Broadcast Spectrum Auction when she spoke to TV critics and writers in Pasadena.
“I am particularly concerned about parts of the country, rural area where over-the-air is important and those in low-income families or where residents are older,” Kerger said. “They tend to be over-the air households, and those are people who often rely on public television.”
About 11 percent of the country relies on over-the-air television only — more if you add households that have some sets attached to cable or satellite but others that get only broadcast signals, according to Barry Garron at Current.org.
Kerger explained that PBS requires that its member stations broadcast over the air. “There is not a scenario where a station would just be a cable-only entity,” she said.
By excluding low-income households, who don’t have the requisite equipment necessary to receive digital sub-channels – literally pricing them out of the market, that is effectively what has already happened in the Rio Grande Valley.
For the 300,000 low-income residents of the colonias, as well as tens of thousands of fixed-income citizens of the Rio Grande Valley, access – much less ownership – to/of computers, cell phones and other mobile devices, as well as cable and satellite services, is not only limited, but for most, not even a remote possibility.
From a technological standpoint, the Rio Grande Valley is 20-30 years behind the rest of the country, and is only now that broadband and WiFi are slowly creeping into the area. Perhaps the elite techies in major markets take things such as a variety of multi-system operators and over-the-top platforms such as Roku and Chromcast for granted; the reality is these options simply do not exist in one of the poorest regions of the United States.
In a sense, however, none of this will matter after March 29, which is the start date for the FCC Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction. Inside sources at KMBH have indicated that the station will be auctioning off its entire broadcast spectrum.
Sidebar Story: Cozi TV
Cozi TV originally launched in January 2013 as NBC Universal’s “classic television specialty network”. Originally found on NBC owned and operated stations, R Communications has now assigned Cozi to its prime channel, replacing PBS programming, as of Feb. 15, 2016.
According to its website, Cozi TV features such “classic” television shows as Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Baywatch, Miami Vice, The Six Million Dollar Man and Murder She Wrote.
The first thing viewers of KMBH’s “new” Prime Channel is the aspect ratio. In some programs, there are black bars on all four sides instead of the more familiar top and bottom bars (“letterbox”), or right and left bars (“pillarbox). Bars on all four sides is called “postage stamp” or windowbox” and is the result of a 4:3 SD (Standard Definition) content being up-converted for 16:9 HD (High Definition) widescreen use and then down-converted when viewed on a 4:3 SD set.
Some viewers might find this distracting – or even unwatchable. Check your television’s manual or DISH’s DVR instructions to see if either will allow you to change the aspect ratio to zoom in on the image.
Another distracting element of Cozi TV is the amount of on-screen graphics. On the lower right of the screen, Cozi displays a large, somewhat-transparent white network logo know as a “bug” during all programing. R Communications’ very own RTV black-and-white semi-transparent logo is prominently – and constantly – displayed through the entire program at the upper left of the screen.
At the beginning of every program is a ratings icon, which also pops up after most of the frequent commercial breaks. Then, for any programs which are closed-captioned, there is a third graphic in the upper right-hand corner. Finally, there is a network identification graphic which is also shown every hour.
“The aspect ratio and graphics issues are most noticeable on such ancient “off-netters” (old network TV shows) from the 4:3 black-and-white “classic” era of the 1950s and 60s including Make Room for Daddy, Lassie, Maverick, The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp, Lone Ranger and The Munsters.”
Despite the fact that Cozi TV is now on KMBH’s Prime Channel, an individual station can decide how much bandwidth they want to devote to the diginet. Not enough bandwidth means a low-quality signal and compression artifacts.
The KMBH regular schedule is now filled with “well-established classic shows” that are, for the most part, readily available on DVD, (without commercials, edits, and inclusive of original program credits), streaming online, or on other networks/cable channels.
In addition, as much as seven minutes of half-hour shows are missing, and all episodes airing on this diginet have been edited so that Cozi TV can fit in more commercials. In addition, Cozi TV squeezes credits on most of its shows, and closing credits on some shows have been entirely removed.
Reviewers have described the shows on Cozi TV as “vapid lifestyle-type programming” which include “snarky promos that make fun of the old shows they’re running.”
Surely, the “powers that be” at R Communications could not have based the change-over in a hunt for ratings in the Rio Grande Valley. According to the website multichannel.com ratings for PBS stations and Cozi TV affiliates were compared with the following results:
April 2015 P 18-49
ALL PBS STATIONS: 0.22 percent
COZI TV AFFILIATES: 0.02 percent
Broadcast network performance from 6A-6A:
April 2015 P 18-49
Total Day(M-Su 6a-6a)
PBS PRIMARY NTWK AFFIL: 0.11
Total Day(M-Su 6a-6a)
COZI TV AFFILIATES: 0.01
Hopefully, DISH and R Communications can soon come to an agreement and make PBS available on another channel for DISH subscribers, at least through the final few episodes of Downton Abbey’s last season.
Unfortunately, even this may only be temporary.
After March 29, should KMBH sell their entire broadcast spectrum to the highest bidder, the “station” will dissipate into the ether like the smoke from a sweet-smelling incense meant to cover the stench of something once so promising now grown rotten.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian placed calls with R Communications market director Romeo Herrera for an interview about the loss of PBS programs on DISH but he has not yet called back.