Phoenix, AZ

A decade-long journey to change satellite TV in south Pinal slowly marches on

Richard Urban

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Mike Weasner.Courtesy of Mike Weasner.

By Richard Urban / NewsBreak Oracle, AZ

In 2009, soon after Mike Weasner and his wife Laurraine moved into the house they built on three acres of land in Oracle, they were surprised when a DirecTV installer told them the satellite television provider carried local stations from Phoenix, not Tucson, depriving them of local news, advertising, and, more importantly, emergency information.

As the installer hooked up the dish, Weasner remembers saying, “Oh, this is great. We'll get to watch the Tucson TV stations.”

“No, you have to watch the Phoenix TV stations,” the installer replied.

Weasner said he and his wife looked at each other, and Weasner said, “What do you mean? Tucson’s just like 30 miles away. Phoenix is like 120 miles away.”

That’s when he first learned of an FCC rule that requires satellite TV providers to carry local stations also divvies up the country into designated market areas, created in conjunction with the Nielson Corp., which measures the audiences within them that local TV stations use to set advertising rates.

An over-the-air antenna is useless, Weasner said, because even though his new home sits at 4,370 feet elevation, mountains between southeast Pinal County and Tucson block local stations’ signals. And while Cox Communications recently announced it was expanding digital service to Oracle, Weasner has his doubts that the fiber optic lines will come anywhere close to his isolated property.

Weasner let it go for nearly four years, but in 2013 his dissatisfaction reached a point where he began what so far has been a futile effort to change that.

“We suffered with it for a while, and then finally I just totally got fed up,” Weasner said. “The Phoenix stations are fine. They can do great coverage of the central part of the state and the northern part of the state, but they basically ignore this part of the state, because Tucson stations cover this part of the state.”

The Air Force veteran is accustomed to getting things done, which has made his journey so frustrating. He acted as a general contractor in building his house. An amateur astronomer, he built an observatory on his property that he calls the "Cassiopeia Observatory." A member of the International Dark-Sky Association, he organized the Oracle Dark Skies Committee, which successfully led to Oracle State Park being designated as International Dark Sky Park.

Weasner applied the skills he developed during his career as a computer systems security engineer, software developer, Air Force Space Shuttle program manager, and defense contractor. And, as a prolific blogger, he wrote about each step along the way in a series of 26 updates so far titled, “Flawed, dangerous, unfair Satellite TV Regulations.”

He discovered that federal legislation, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), empowered the Federal Communication Commission to set market boundaries across the country and thereby the local stations that providers such as DirecTV and Dish TV must carry.

All of Pinal County, he found, was lumped in with Maricopa County, meaning the local stations satellite TV providers had to offer were based in Phoenix. The south part of Pinal, which is oriented more toward Tucson, could not be moved to that Nielson market.

He also found out that other cities and counties around the country were similarly out of alignment.

So, Weasner did what any reasonable person might do and contacted his congresswoman, Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district included Oracle. Congress passed the law, so Congress should be able to fix it, he reasoned.

“As we know, Congress isn't always logical,” Weasner said. “I was communicating with them almost monthly for years and years, trying to get something done through Congress and through the FCC. But again, it was kind of falling on deaf ears, unfortunately.”

He also learned that only a government entity can petition to modify a satellite TV market and the stations within it, and he persuaded the county to explore to process. But that effort was suspended after assurances that Rep. Tom O’Halleran, who succeeded Kirkpatrick, was working on the matter. Again, nothing happened, and Congress reauthorized STELA in 2019 without changes that would affect the way markets are configured.

In 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak and the Bighorn Fire increased Weasner’s sense of urgency.

As the pandemic took hold, Weasner said, information about testing and other developments came from far-away Phoenix stations, not those in nearby Tucson.

The July Bighorn Fire burned nearly 120,000 acres, the flames visible from Weasner’s house. He desperately sought information, but again, Phoenix news stations did not provide nearly as much pertinent information as Tucson stations about where the fire was headed and the progress in containing it.

“I've been pointing this out for years, that not only is this thing putting lives at risk, but it's harming local businesses,” Weasner said. “And it's harming consumers. We don't see the commercials for businesses in this area, but that's where people here go to shop. We don't see commercials for entertainment that's going on in Tucson. So, it's hurting businesses. They're losing potential customers.”

The county recently restarted efforts to petition the FCC for a market modification that would enable satellite TV providers to carry Tucson stations for south Pinal County subscribers, Deputy County Manager Himanshu Patel said.

“This is not one of our core services, so we're also learning how this stuff works,” Patel said. “We’ve had conversations with satellite providers, and what we're finding out is there's exceptions that can be made. So, we’re actively pursuing research and analysis and evaluating other county entities in the United States that have been successful in getting a market modification.”

The process will take time, Patel said, while he tries to navigate all the interests involved.

Phoenix stations do not want to lose viewers. Advertising rates are determined by how many people are watching. Tucson stations would welcome additional viewers. Complicating that equation is the fact that some stations in both markets share common ownership.

“It's a complicated process to prepare this petition,” Weasner said. “Once that petition hits the FCC, a staff member warned me, the FCC to take 10 years to get it resolved.”

And that means the journey that started 13 years ago with a comment to an installer could take another decade.

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Richard is an award-winning journalist with more than 40 years experience in newspaper and magazine publishing. He has covered topics that include local and state government and politics, courts and crime, environment, business and innovation.

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