County seeks emergency FCC ruling giving residents access to Atlanta stations

Stephens County commissioners have requested action by the FCC that would grant a temporary emergency order approving the county’s 2018 request to be moved from the Greenville/Spartanburg SC market and into the Atlanta market. Hart, Franklin and Elbert County officials, have mirrored Stephens County’s request to the FCC, and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has sent a litter to the FCC requesting the county's’ requests be honored in light of the current COVID-19 crisis and the importance to residence of local, relevant news and information.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Stephens County residents only receive South Carolina and North Carolina news through their satellite television provider, and those who do receive Georgia-related content from Atlanta based stations have paid a fee to their satellite provider in order to receive Atlanta Stations. Residents in neighboring Franklin, Hart and Elbert county are experiencing similar situations, as all four counties have long been considered “orphan counties” under FCC guidelines.

“An orphan county is a county that, as a result of the structure of the local television markets, is served exclusively, or almost exclusively, by television stations coming from a neighboring state,” states an FCC memorandum in response to a 2018 petition by Stephens County to be transferred to the Atlanta market from the Greenville SC area market. “Satellite television subscribers residing in an orphan county often are not able to access their home state’s news, politics, sports, emergency information, and other television programming.”

“(Stephens) County has been “orphaned” by Nielsen due to its assignment to an out-of-state DMA and has been deprived of the ability to receive from a satellite carrier its preferred in-state television broadcast stations. Consumers in the County have been unable to receive from satellite carriers important news from their own state capitol, which impairs viewers’ abilities to follow political news such as elections and legislative issues that directly affect them as news outlets from the Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville/Anderson market do not provide deeper insight into Georgia politics. Sports fans in the County have had far fewer opportunities to enjoy in-state televised sporting events such as the Atlanta Falcons football games and the record breaking seasons of the Atlanta United Major League Soccer team,” states a letter from CBS to the FCC in support of Stephens County’s petition. “In addition, the County’s weather patterns, while influenced by the Blue Ridge mountain range, typically comes from the West and the metro Atlanta area. As part of the Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville-Anderson DMA, the County is at a disadvantage for seeing the incoming weather from the other portions of our state.”

In 2019, the FCC approved Stephens County’s petition the FCC for market modifications that would make four Georgia television stations - WSB-TV, WGCL, WAGA, and WXIA-TV, all of Atlanta - available to satellite subscribers in the Stephens County. The FCC also approved the requests from Elbert, Franklin and Hart Counties, despite opposition to the petitions from North and South Carolina network affiliates – opposition that was considered and overridden in the FCC’s decision-making process, which, by commission rules, must take into account “localism” and residents’ access to local programming in its decisions.

“(W)e are persuaded by the overall strength of the evidence that a sufficient market nexus exists between the Station and Stephens County. As the foregoing analysis indicates, this is a close case. In such circumstances, we believe that the outcome that best serves the intent of Congress in enacting section 338(l) is to provide the petitioning orphan county with the access to in-state programming it is requesting,” states the FCC’s memorandum approving Stephens County’s petition. “We accordingly grant the requests for market modification, and order the addition of Stephens County to the local markets of WSB-TV, WGCL, WAGA, and WXIA on both DISH and DIRECTV.”

However, local network affiliates in North and South Carolina continue to appeal the FCC rulings for Stephens, Franklin and Hart counties in an attempt to keep the counties – and their residents – in their market The appeal is still active and Stephens County is still tied to the Greenville/Spartanburg SC market.

“We respectfully ask the Commission to uphold the 2018/2019 market modification that were rightfully granted to each of the Northeast Georgia Counties,” states a March 31 letter from Stephens County Commissioners to the FCC. “Please accelerate any mandated review of the petitions, appeals, and related documents for each county (and) in this time of declared emergency, we are asking that the Commission, stations, and satellites providers work together to provide access to Georgia’s news to our Georgia residents immediately.

“...I have long advocated for the four counties in Georgia’s Ninth Congressional District that are deemed “orphan counties” – Franklin, Elbert, Hart, and Stephens counties. These counties do not receive in-state programming, but instead receive their programming from our neighboring states, South Carolina and North Carolina,” states US Rep. Doug Collins in a letter sent last week to the FCC. “This means nearly 94,000 of my constituents are currently getting their “local” news from other states. In recent weeks, I’ve heard from several constituents worried they will miss an important coronavirus-related order issued by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp or that they will miss updates regarding the number of Georgians affected by this pandemic,” he added, saying that is “unacceptable” that residents are not able to receive pertinent, local information during the COVID-19 pandemic because “media conglomerates” oppose the available solution.

Collins requested the FCC provide the status of the appeals of the FCC’s approval of the county’s petitions, as well as asking when the counties can expect a final decision on their application and when residents can expect to receive Atlanta-based programming. Collins also asked if the FCC is “able to work with stations and satellite providers to provide affected Georgians with immediate access to Atlanta-based programing in light of Georgia’s current State of Emergency declaration.”

ConnectLocal will update this story when Collins or the county receives response from the FCC.


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