Dishing it: 'I want my 'VPT'

When Ann Neumark and her husband moved from Mill Creek to their new house on Route 20 South four years ago, they could no longer receive cable TV, and so they switched to satellite– specifically, to Dish Network.

For Neumark, this was a step down: Two of the stations she wanted the most to watch, WVIR (Channel 29 in Charlottesville) and WVPT (the Harrisonburg-based PBS affiliate), are not available in our "designated market area," or DMA.

About a year ago, she claims, an ad began airing that said, "Check with Dish Network to see when you'll get local stations." It included an 800 number, which Neumark called several times; instead of answers, however, she states that all she got was "a lot of gobbledygook." Finally, in one phone call she asked for the name of the company's CEO, but she claims that the employee refused to divulge that bit of very public information, which she got from the library.

By then, she says, Dish had stopped running the ad. Her desire to get local stations, however, was as strong as ever, and on July 22 of this year she wrote Fifth District Representative Virgil Goode Jr. Goode responded quickly and suggested she write Dish Network; he also offered to contact the company himself if she'd send him a copy of her letter.

Neumark faxed CEO Charles Ergen on July 28 to ask when she "would be able to receive network broadcasting from much closer than New York City," and added that "Whenever I have spoken with your employees staffing the 800 number about this issue, their comments (not answers) have been beyond vague."

On July 29, Goode wrote Dish Network executive vice president Soraya Hesabi-Cartwright and asked that she look into Neumark's situation. There was no response until Friday, August 15, when Dish Network employee "Eric" (she claims he refused to reveal his last name) called, but she says that the conversation was not fruitful.

For instance, two days earlier Neumark had spoken to Tony Mancari, WVPT vice president for engineering and technical operations, who gave her some intriguing behind-the-scenes information (which he also put in writing).

"WVPT offered its signal free of charge to both Direct TV and Dish Network well over a year ago," he wrote, "and so far they have refused to carry our broadcast signal." The Harrisonburg affiliate, he noted, "is the only station that is not carried in [Virginia] by satellite TV. Both dish services now carry the Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk and Northern Virginia PBS stations in their local broadcast markets."

When Neumark tried to discuss this and related issues with Eric, however, she claims that he was less than helpful. She asked that he put Dish Network's position in writing, for instance, but says he refused. Finally, according to Neumark, he declared, "I can see you're not in the mood to talk right now– I'll call you tomorrow." When she pointed out that the next day was Saturday, she claims he hung up on her. After that, she contacted me.

I spoke with Dish Network spokeswoman Michelle Portillo, who explained that neither Dish nor Direct TV (which is the only other satellite-TV provider in the U.S.) has enough broadband capacity in certain DMAs to offer local programming. Of its 210 markets, Dish currently offers local stations to only 70, but intends to have 100 by the end of 2003. In terms of Virginia, she said, Roanoke has just been launched, and Richmond will get local programming within the year. Charlottesville, however, simply isn't a big enough DMA to qualify anytime soon.

As for why Dish hadn't taken WVPT up on its offer of a free signal, she hypothesized that perhaps there isn't room on the satellite. For now, she said, Neumark "can receive local stations– from New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles." Huh? That's local?

When I asked about Neumark's description of her conversation with Eric, Portillo promised to ask him about it– then, the next day, reported that he had denied hanging up on Neumark.

Portillo also promised to find out which PBS station Neumark is receiving (no call letters are displayed) so that she can make programming suggestions– a question Neumark had asked, beginning on July 22, in each of her three letters to Dish. That promise, however, went unfulfilled.

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