The Secret World of Maine’s TV Subchannels
I know some seemingly normal people who don’t own televisions.
I know plenty of twenty- and thirty-somethings who have TVs, but get all their programming from online services such as Hulu.com.
And I know loads of folks who pay for cable or satellite services offering hundreds of channels and monthly bills to match.
But I don’t know anyone who watches subchannels.
In part, that’s probably because I live in a rural corner of the state, where no regular over-the-air TV signal ever reaches, let alone their additional digital broadcasts. I depend on the dish attached to the side of my house to bring me Red Sox games, bad local newscasts, worse Syfy movies and “Jeopardy.”
But for anyone living within about thirty miles of Presque Isle, Bangor, or Raymond (where most of Portland’s TV stations have their towers), all it takes to receive subchannels is a digital TV (or an analog set with a converter box) and a rooftop antenna. With that investment, a viewer who didn’t want to pay a monthly fee or settle for day-old shows online could avail themselves of all the regular local channels and an equal number of subchannels offering a variety of programming, some of it not available on cable.
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network, for instance, has two subchannels, one of which shows the same stuff that’s on MPBN’s five regular stations and one that offers PBS programming. The MPBN subchannels are on most cable systems, as well, but not on satellite.
WCSH, the NBC affiliate in Portland; WLBZ, NBC in Bangor; and WMTW, ABC in Portland, all have subchannels that offer earlier newscasts and weather updates. Some of these are also on cable systems, but there doesn’t seem to be much information about any of them on the stations’ websites, perhaps for fear they’ll drain away rating points.
At WPFO, the Portland FOX station, the subchannel carries the Telos Alternative Health Network. My Network affiliate WPME in Portland uses its subchannel for Maine tourism information, while sister station WPXT, the CW outlet, offers old TV shows from ME-TV.
Speaking of the CW, it fills WABI’s subchannel in Bangor, while the main channel is occupied by CBS programming.
WAGM in Presque Isle has a similar arrangement, with CBS on the main channel and FOX on the subchannel.
WVII in Bangor, which already operates as an ABC outlet on one channel and a FOX affiliate on another, is the only commercial station in the state with no subchannels.
As this list indicates, subchannels seem to be something of an afterthought at most stations. They don’t get much promotion, either on the regular channels or online. They’re just there, waiting for a day when somebody figures out how to make money from them. All those promises from broadcasters of expanded programming opportunities (whatever became of MPBN’s hints that it would one day offer live coverage of the Legislature, for instance) turned out to be so much dead air.
To paraphrase the late Gil Scott-Heron, the digital revolution is being televised. But in Maine, it isn’t all that interesting, and hardly anybody is watching.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.