Facing complaints from some viewers and pressure from lawmakers, Comcast Corp. struck a deal with a local television station to boost the over-the-air signal for its new NBC Boston station that will officially debut in three weeks.
In a letter Monday to Senator Edward Markey, who had questioned the strength of the company’s signal in the Boston area, Comcast said it has entered into an agreement with Boston television station WMFP that will result in the NBC signal reaching even more viewers than the current affiliate, WHDH.
WMFP broadcasts on channel 62, but the NBC broadcast will be on a sub-channel, 60.5.
NBC, which is owned by Comcast, will be dropping its affiliation with WHDH-TV (Channel 7) beginning Jan. 1. It began the transition in November with an over-the-air “countdown channel” broadcasting from WNEU (Channel 60) in Merrimack, N.H. and from WBTS, a low-power station in Needham.
The channel currently airs simulcasts of Comcast’s local cable news station, NECN, as well as some talk and entertainment shows including the “Rachael Ray Show” and “Access Hollywood Live.”
But some over-the-air viewers who live in Boston or nearby suburbs complained on NBC Boston’s Facebook page that they could not get either new channel, or had poor reception.
In the letter to Markey, David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president at Comcast, announced the agreement with WMFP, a full-power station also transmitting out of Needham.
“As a result, NBC Boston will now deliver interference-free over-the-air service to approximately 275,000 more viewers in the Boston [Designated Market Area] than WHDH on January 1, 2017,” Cohen said in the letter.
Cohen said the broadcast with WMFP will begin Dec. 21, but will be temporary until NBC can “acquire another full-power television station,” in the Boston area.
An executive at Texas-based NRJ TV LLC, which owns WMFP, declined to comment. NRJ TV is a media holding company funded by money manager Fortress Investment Group LLC with $50 billion in assets as of 2012, according to media reports. The group has rapidly acquired a number of full-power stations in major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, spending a reported $234.2 million as of 2013, including $5 million for WMFP, according to trade website TVTechnology.
Officials at WMFP did not return an e-mail for comment. WMFP broadcasts programming from the Sonlife Broadcasting Network, owned by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. WMFP’s current programming will not be affected by the agreement with NBC Boston.
Markey said in a statement Monday that he appreciates that Comcast and NBCUniversal took steps, “at my urging to temporarily expand the reach of its signal to cover most residents in Massachusetts and its stated intention to find a permanent solution to ensure full coverage of the market as soon as possible.”
“I will continue to urge Comcast-NBCUniversal to ensure that all residents throughout the region can enjoy the same quality and reliability of free, over-the-air NBC content as soon as possible,” Markey said.
US Representatives Stephen Lynch and Joseph Kennedy III have also written to Comcast expressing concern about the strength of the station’s over-the-air signal. Senator Elizabeth Warren sent out a tweet last week also calling on Comcast to address the issue.
NBC Boston has been running programs on its new channels ahead of the launch of the NBC Boston station. But the signal was apparently not strong enough for some over-the-air viewers, many of whom picked up Channel 7’s powerful 1,000-kilowatt signal without issue.
By contrast, NBC-owned WNEU in New Hampshire, which provides programming for Telemundo, broadcasts at 80 kilowatts of power, while the WBTS translator in Needham broadcasts at 11.2 kilowatts.
For now, NBC Boston’s signal will get a major boost from the agreement with WMFP, which, like Channel 7, also broadcasts at 1,000 kilowatts.
Cohen said the company’s efforts to buy a similarly powered station in the Boston area are on hold while the Federal Communications Commission conducts an auction of television broadcast spectrum to cellular phone companies.
Robert Yankowitz, chairman of the Massachusetts chapter of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, said that in addition to WMFP, there are several other small, powerful stations in the Boston area that may appeal to Comcast if they’re still available after the spectrum auction is concluded.
But he questioned whether Comcast would be willing to go through the trouble and expense of buying a full-power station in order to satisfy the small numbers of viewers who still watch only over-the-air television, estimated at 3 to 4 percent of total viewers in the Boston area.
NBC Boston also sent replies to some viewers who had complained to the company about the weak signal.
Jamaica Plain resident Glen Manseau said he received an e-mail signed by an NBC Boston representative informing him of the upcoming boost in signal strength.
“We are pleased to report that we have a plan to improve our signal before January 1st,” the message read. “We are working swiftly to get Channel 60.5 on the air about Wednesday, December 21st.”
Another viewer, Kris Haight, said in an e-mail to the Globe prior to Monday’s announcement that the over-the-air reception for NBC Boston at his home in Chelsea is “horrible.”
“It’s so weak that it’s unwatchable,” said Haight, who said he canceled his cable service four years ago and is able to watch WHDH and other major network channels. “It comes in with digital fragments, which means the picture freezes or is blocky.”
The station is urging viewers to rescan their televisions the week leading up to Jan. 1. NBC Boston can currently be found on over-the-air channels 8.1 and 60.2, and 60.5 by around Dec. 21.