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State College: Home to Zero For-Profit Television Networks

by on September 03, 2015 6:00 AM

Given my occasional line of work I guess I should watch a bit more television to stay current on trends in pop culture. 

Until I saw her video on TV I thought a well-liked female singer was a big Star Wars & Star Trek fan – the song lyrics I heard were, “It’s all about the Binks, Jar Jar Binks, no Tribbles.”  

With the plethora of channels available through multiple outlets on most of my electronic devices, I certainly have plenty of opportunities to watch TV. 

And I did discover how to watch Penn State wrestling on my phone last winter, so I’m technologically capable of making it happen.

However, the one thing I can’t watch is a major for-profit network broadcasting its morning and evening local news from here in Happy Valley.  In fact, I can’t watch a major for-profit network broadcasting ANY of its offerings from their headquarters in our glorious central Pennsylvania enclave.  Why is that, I wonder?

When I arrived at Penn State back in the Stone Ages, my initial exposure to TV in Happy Valley was as I moved into Beam Hall with my 12-inch black-and-white Panasonic TV – encased in glorious burnt-umber/orange plastic.  I soon discovered there was, of course, no cable in the rooms in Beam Hall and resigned myself to a “Tube”-less existence.  I had wasted valuable car space moving a now­-useless dorm decoration.   

Useless until some dorm floor neighbors from the “big city” arrived and demonstrated how the antenna on the TV (I always wondered what that was for!) could be used to receive one lonely station from Johnstown – just barely and under the correct weather conditions.  Having grown up in the land of cable TV – 12 whole channels! – I had no idea that you could get a television signal across the airwaves in the same manner as radio.  Who knew?

Fast forward in time to a few weeks ago and my internet home screen was flashing its usual number of factoid lists that it barrages me with every time I log on. 5 Things Investors Shouldn't Do Now.  Top 10 Colleges Preferred by High-School Students.  12 Retailers Back From the Dead.  15 Myths About Introverts.  The Poorest Town in Each State.

Wait, The Poorest Town in Each State?!  The accompany photo of a bucolic river bending its way through the center of a clearly rural valley-town caught my eye.   It looked familiar.  The landscape, the terrain, the buildings, the trees… it all had a central Pennsylvania look to it.  I thought, wouldn’t that be a hoot – the picture they choose to illustrate “The Poorest Town in Each State” is a town in Pennsylvania.  Being an ethnocentric northerner I assumed they would use a picture of someplace in Mississippi.

So I did something I VERY RARELY do.  I clicked the link.

Wouldn’t you know it, it was a picture of Johnstown, PA.

Turns out the median household income in Johnstown is $25,542, compared to the state’s median of $52,548, and 26.8% of its 20,740 citizens live in poverty.  The comments in the article noted that only 11.2% of adults in Johnstown had at least a bachelor’s degree (versus 27.5% statewide), and this likely contributed to the town’s low median household income.

Granted, the median household income in State College is $23,513, and 46.9% of the population lives below the poverty line.  But when 70% of your population is college students, that has a tendency to skew your numbers.  “Living in poverty” is certainly not a description one would use to characterize the average Penn State student.   The surrounding Townships show a clearer picture and all have much higher (more than double) median incomes and much lower poverty rates.

Yet, here we are in Happy Valley with no major for-profit television networks.  Of the four – ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox – three are based in Johnstown, and the fourth is based in Altoona.   And according to the FCC, Happy Valley is in the “Johnstown-Altoona” television market.  (The US Census groups us in the State College/DuBois Metropolitan Statistical Area). 

The Johnstown-Altoona television market contains 11 counties and a population of 809,000. Centre County is the largest by population with over 158,000 people, followed by Cambria County with 144,000 people.  Not only is Centre County larger, but the populations of those two counties are going in opposite directions – Centre is growing while Cambria is shrinking.  In addition, Centre County is the second-largest geographic county in the market, just 41 square miles smaller than Clearfield County.

All of which begs the question – why hasn’t one or more of the major for-profit television networks moved their home-base here to Happy Valley?   Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up, turn on the TV, see the morning news team sitting at their studio desks with a graphic of Mt. Nittany in the background, and hear them announce, “this is W-blank-blank-blank, broadcasting live from State College”?

Since the placement of television stations involves the Federal Communications Commission, I’ll assume there are politics and money tied up in this equation, and hope that one of our duly-elected representatives makes an effort to rectify this slightly annoying imbalance.

In the meantime, I guess Happy Valley, the birthplace of educational television, will have to make do with our PBS station, WPSU.  Given the state of for-profit network television, maybe that’s not a bad trade-off after all.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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