The Berkshires’ ‘orphan county’ status is creating problems again

The 1st District primary debate between Rep. Richard Neal and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud was televised, just not for thousands of local voters.

First District debate between Rep. Richard Neal and Tamirah Amatul-Wadud on WWLP.
The 1st District debate between Rep. Richard Neal and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud on WWLP. –Screenshot via WWLP.com

Rep. Richard Neal faced challenger Tahirah Amatul-Wadud on Wednesday in the first debate of their Democratic primary race for the 1st District congressional seat. But for residents in the the western half of Neal’s district, the event was absent from the TV airwaves — even though it was hosted and broadcasted by WWLP, the Springfield-based NBC affiliate station.

And it’s hardly the first time the Berkshires have faced local TV headaches.

For the same reasons that the Massachusetts county has been blacked out of New England Patriots games in the past, thousands of residents in the county had no options for watching the debate between Neal and Amatul-Wadad on TV.

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According to Nielsen’s regional TV market map, the Berkshires are geographically part of the Albany, New York, media market and get TV through Charter Communication’s Spectrum, which has approximately 30,000 cable subscribers in the county.

As part of an out-of-state media market, the Berkshires are known as a so-called “orphan county.” That designation leaves the region vulnerable to decisions by the local cable provider to get rid of “out-of-market” content — even if it means depriving local voters from seeing the district’s first Democratic primary debate in six years.

Last year, Spectrum decided to drop WWLP from its Berkshire-area channel lineup, arguing the “out-of-market” station’s programming was “duplicative” of the content being offered by WNYT, the Albany-based NBC affiliate. The company similarly eliminated WCVB, the Boston-based ABC affiliate, from its offerings to customers in the southern half of the county this past spring.

In other words, thousands of Berkshires residents don’t get local Massachusetts news (and even some Patriots games) from their NBC or ABC stations. Satellite TV subscribers in the region reportedly face a similar problem.

“The reality is the viewers and the residents of Berkshire County have a tendency to favor Massachusetts,” former WWLP general manager William Pepin told MassLive last year. “They don’t care what is going on in the Albany Statehouse. They don’t get Massachusetts coverage from the Albany television stations. This [is] about a local television station providing local service to the citizens of Berkshire County.”

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Neal and other local lawmakers — from the state level to the U.S. Senate — have rallied to restore local in-state (though technically out-of-market) television to the Berkshires. This past June, Sen. Ed Markey said he planned to introduce a bill to move the Berkshires from the Albany market to the Springfield market. And local state legislators have been pushing a petition urging Spectrum to bring back WWLP and WCVB.

“While under FCC guidelines it is legal for the cable giant to only offer one broadcast affiliate, there is no rule against giving Berkshire consumers access to both NY and MA channels – and for decades that is what has been done,” the petition says. “The Berkshires are western Mass — not east Albany!”

Fast-forward back to Wednesday’s debate, there were still options for those who couldn’t watch (or otherwise missed) the 30-minute event. WWLP live-streamed the event online and posted the entire video on their website.

The two candidates are also planning to participate in a second debate on Aug. 30, hosted by the Springfield-based public TV station WGBY-Public Television and the League of Women Voters. And, yes, Spectrum still carries WGBY for the Berkshires.