Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen answers reader questions online every Friday in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Here's a selection of recent queries.
Q: I know you have addressed the issue of loud commercials (links to the FCC), but would that also cover the obnoxiously loud, repetitious "stinger" music that is played on every newscast of every station between segments and going out to commercials? Seems to me that would have to be controlled by the local outlet. This is one more reason I am becoming loath to watch local news. I know from traveling that network affiliates all seem to play these same inane blasts of sound, but does each channel at least control its own volume output?
-- Linda, 67, Murrysville
Rob: The stingers and any other sound effects in newscasts are not covered by the CALM Act that regulates volume on commercials. That's all at the discretion of local stations.
Q: I'm writing to see if you know why we who live in rural areas of Pennsylvania are being corralled into large markets that don't cover ANY pertinent news for the places we live. Armstrong is my cable company, and I've gotten different answers from different people, but I believe it is to boost the large market viewer numbers for the purpose of ad revenue combined with a complicit FCC mandate, i.e. Big gov + big corp. We can't get any weather or news for where we live.
At one time we got WJAC Johnstown, WTAJ Altoona, WICU Erie, WJET Erie. We lost Johnstown years ago, the Altoona station a while ago, now they took away Erie from all of us Armstrong customers in these Northern areas, Tidioute, Titusville, Tionesta, Marienville. I'm not sure of any other places that lost Erie, but no one is happy. We had two Erie and three Pittsburgh stations at the time of our loss. We are left with the three Pittsburgh locals -- and I might add, three stations covering the same stories repeatedly.
Who cares about rural Pennsylvania?
-- Lem, Marienville
Rob: It doesn't really have anything to do with large or small markets. But it is about money.
The Pittsburgh DMA (designated market area) includes Forest County where the Pennsylvania towns Lem mentions are located. Cable systems must carry local, over-the-air TV stations for their designated market; they are under no obligation to carry stations from other nearby markets. Some cable systems used to anyway, as Lem points out. But that was before broadcast networks started demanding to be paid for carriage by cable companies (retransmission consent). That only started in the past 10 years and cable companies are loath to pay twice for an ABC station.
Here's further explanation from Armstrong vice president of cable marketing Dave Wittmann:
"As you know, the FCC has divided the country into 210 television markets (DMAs). The local broadcast stations for those markets have various rights, most importantly broadcast non-duplication (affiliate network programming) and syndicated exclusivity (the syndicated shows they contract with like 'Jeopardy'). Stations are enforcing those rights as their viewing continues to decline. That results in blackouts of out-of-market stations during 80 percent-plus of their schedule.
"Add the significantly growing cost of retransmission consent and you can understand why it is becoming very challenging to provide any out-of-market signals (pay twice for a CBS affiliate for example, one of which is blacked out most of the day). It is very disappointing to Armstrong that, although we can technically accomplish providing additional broadcast stations that consumers would like, it is no longer feasible to do so. Cable companies originally offered as many local broadcasters as our antennas could receive. The realities of the changing business of television have made that impractical.
"Your reader should understand it has nothing to do with being rural and that this situation has occurred throughout the country over the past several years. Consumers who live near state borders often have the biggest issue with these rules, as they can become disenfranchised with their own state. The Parkersburg, W.Va., area had a problem with this and Lawrence County in Pa. has some issues because it is part of the Youngstown, Ohio, DMA. (Some Lawrence County residents don't get the daily Pennsylvania lottery drawing for example.)"
Q: I can't be the only person sick to death of all the UPMC/Highmark commercials on the local stations. As soon I see one, the channel is immediately changed. When I see the one with Patrice King Brown, and she starts by saying, "Pittsburghers are mad ...," I always yell back at the TV, "Yes, we're mad. We have to listen to these nonstop commercials, and we're sick of it!" How can we, as consumers, stop the madness? Am I the only one complaining?
-- Renee, 54, Butler
Rob: No, Renee is not alone. I've heard from others, some constructive, some mean-spirited.
How can you stop it? By turning off the TV. That's the only way to make unwanted TV ads go away if you are watching live TV.
Another option is to record TV programming on a DVR and fast-forward through all the commercials.