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July 01. 2013 7:20PM

Nashua TV station WYCN fights to remain on Comcast

NASHUA — For Gordon Jackson and Carolyn Choate, it was a homecoming of sorts.

The husband-wife broadcasting team often seen behind and in front of the camera at local events returned to Nashua as managers of local TV station WYCN (TV 13) on May 21.

That was the day after the sale of the station by Derry-based Binnie Media to Over The Air Broadcasting (OTA), a company largely owned by computer magnate Michael Dell.

OTA paid $4 million for the low-power station, began to immediately invest in upgrades, and hired Jackson as station manager and Choate as programming manager and producer.

"We went to bat the very next day, producing our butts off and going out to tell everyone who would listen that local programming was back on Channel 13," Choate said.

Then on Wednesday, they got a notice from Comcast that the company was going to drop Channel 13 from the cable TV lineup. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows them that they aren't taking that sitting down.

"Having served the Greater Nashua community with local civic programming for much of the last 25 years, we strongly object," they wrote in an email appeal for support. "We would argue that WYCN Nashua is a local institution worth saving and we humbly ask your support."

The email went out to the state's congressional delegation, state and local officials, business and civic leaders and the media. It states that Comcast cited "inconvenience, lack of local programming and an outdated analog signal" in announcing plans to drop WYCN from the local lineup by Aug. 15.

Comcast spokesman Mark Goodman would not comment, except to say, "Comcast is well within its rights to determine how and if it will carry WYCN in accordance with our agreement. Comcast is planning to drop TV 13 from our local lineup later this year. We will notify customers at least 30 days in advance of these changes."

Decision out of touch?

Choate says the Comcast decision is out of touch with the current reality. Programming on the station was limited to the syndicated My Family TV lineup from February 2012 to May 2013 under Binnie Media ownership, she admits, but that has not been the case since May 21.

She provided a list of 19 original programs the station has aired since May 21, all based on local events, ranging from coverage of the Hollis Strawberry Festival to the opening of a new Market Basket on Route 101A. The local programs air at 9 a.m., and at 4, 7 and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, with My Family TV programs airing otherwise.

Regarding the outdated analog signal, that too is being addressed, she said. OTA is investing $6 million to convert WYCN to digital broadcast, with construction of a new broadcast tower in Derry scheduled to begin in 60 days.

"They have ambitious plans for this station and the network they are building across the country," Jackson said.

With a digital signal, WYCN will have the potential to reach deep into the Boston market, thus substantially enhancing its commercial possibilities, he said.

When asked if Comcast was aware of these recent developments or would reconsider its decision in light of them, Goodman declined to comment.

Carol LeFever, chief operating officer for OTA, said she is hoping to get Comcast to reconsider.

"I am guardedly optimistic that we will be able to retain the Comcast carriage," she said. "It's going to take evidence of support from the community and a desire to see that local programming, now that it's being returned to the air."

OTA now owns stations in Providence, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Houston, and counts WYCN as a Boston station. As OTA acquired the stations, there was speculation that Dell was more interested in the FCC licenses than the stations themselves, with emerging plans by the FCC to auction off parts of the broadcast spectrum once reserved for television to mobile carriers and Internet service providers for super-fast wireless networks.

Seeking solidarity

LeFever wouldn't confirm or deny that speculation, saying, "We're buying them and running them as TV stations at this time."

Ironically, the name of the company — Over the Air — suggests a business model that moves away from cable delivery and places a bet on the return of antenna reception, albeit in digital format.

Companies like Aereo, now operating in the Boston area, offer subscribers the opportunity to access all broadcast channels (but no cable channels) via antenna for as little as $8 a month.

"In several of our markets, we have no cable carriage," LeFever said. "We rely on over-the-air distribution of signals. Our Houston station delivers eight over-the-air stations with no cable carriage."

But if WYCN is going off cable, it would like to do so on its terms. For now, the market cable provides is essential for the station to maintain and grow its advertising base.

"It's not our intent to criticize the cable company, as we've had a long, fruitful history with the industry over these many years," said Choate, "but rather to show Comcast that the community stands in solidarity with us."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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