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GERRYMANDERED TELEVISION: The most gerrymandered map in America is the map that controls which local TV stations you receive

Not all local television markets are created equal. That’s because of various influences predating cable, satellite, and streaming television by decades.

SERIES NOTE: This story is the first story in a multiple-part series titled Gerrymandered Television.

When most people think of gerrymandering, you probably think of partisan efforts to draw congressional or state legislative districts to give one political party an unfair advantage over another political party.

However, the most gerrymandered map in America is not a congressional district or state legislative district map. It’s the map that plays the largest role in determining what local and network-affiliated television stations you receive if you use a cable or satellite television service to watch television: the map of designated market areas, or DMAs.

The DMA map is maintained by Nielsen Media Research, the company that produces the Nielsen ratings, which are cited in media reports about how many viewers watched a particular television program or series. The DMA map doesn’t appear to be readily available on Nielsen’s website; the most recent DMA map I could find online dates back to the 2017–2018 television season and was found on a non-Nielsen website. There have been relatively few and minimal changes to the DMA map since the mid-1990’s, most of them consisting of counties along a DMA boundary being shifted from one DMA to a neighboring DMA. As you can tell from the map, there is a lot of inequality in terms of both population and land area among DMAs.

In the early days of television, the only way to receive television signals was over-the-air via an antenna, and people only received a few television stations, typically one each of the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks, and sometimes an independent station or two as well as a public (i.e., NET/PBS) television station. Most areas of the U.S. didn’t have cable television access until well into the late 20th century, and direct broadcast satellite television in its current form (i.e., digital) didn’t exist until the mid-1990’s, although analog satellite television existed for over a decade before then. Most of the DMA boundaries date back to the early days of television and were determined primarily by which stations viewers in a particular county had the easiest time receiving over-the-air in the early days of television. However, this was not an exact science by any means.

Remember that broadcast (i.e., over-the-air) television stations broadcast their signals on either one of two very high frequency (VHF) bands or the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band. In the analog era (i.e., before the digital television transition a number of years ago), the VHF bands were the preferred band for two reasons. First, VHF signals can travel farther than signals on the UHF band. Second, prior to passage of a 1962 federal law mandating that television sets contain UHF tuners, most television sets in the United States were only capable to tuning to VHF television channels. However, only twelve VHF channels were (and still are) available for broadcast television, numbered 2–13, and DMAs anchored by the largest city in a region were given anywhere from three to seven VHF television allocations. This meant that many areas of the country were not in close proximity to any VHF station, meaning that UHF stations were needed to serve these areas. DMAs without a VHF station became known as UHF islands, and some of the smallest media markets in the country in terms of land area were UHF islands in the analog era.

In the digital era, UHF is actually the preferred band to transmit a broadcast television signal because digital signals are much more prone to signal interference on the VHF band. As a result, many, but not all, VHF stations in the analog era moved their over-the-air signal to the UHF band and were permitted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use their former analog channel number as a virtual channel number. Furthermore, all UHF television channel frequencies above Channel 37 (which was never actually used for television due to the frequencies of that channel being an UHF radio astronomy band) in the U.S. were auctioned by the FCC to other users of the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning that every broadcast television station in the U.S. has to transmit their physical broadcast signal on one of thirty-five channel frequencies (numbered 2–36; 2–13 VHF, 14–36 UHF). This has led to extreme crowding of the broadcast television spectrum and has forced broadcast television stations to broadcast to analog-era DMAs in a crowded digital TV spectrum. In scattered pockets of the country, the stations one can receive over-the-air is in a different DMA than the stations cable and satellite providers provide for the area.

Another factor in causing the messiness of the DMA map is that broadcast television stations transmit line-of-sight from tall broadcast towers. If a station transmits using an omnidirectional transmitting antenna, and its coverage area lacks any mountains or other physical obstructions, then its coverage area is going to be circular in shape. However, counties and county-equivalents in the United States are of many shapes, with many being rectangular or roughly rectangular, and few, if any, being even roughly circular in shape. As a result, the DMA map represents a proverbial attempt to put round pegs into square holes.

In the next story of this series, I’ll explain several types of gerrymandered DMAs. Check back soon!

SERIES NOTE: The next story in this series is coming soon!

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