When Montanans tuned into a PBS documentary on dark money Tuesday night, some found their screens were dark, too.

That’s what happened to Optimum cable subscribers, such as Nancy Schultz of Bozeman, when they tried to tune into the “Frontline” documentary, “Big Sky, Big Money.”

“We were exceedingly disappointed,” Schultz said. “We repeatedly tried but it didn’t come in until the end of the show. I’m canceling my Optimum service.”

Many Montanans planned to tune into the documentary accusing out-of-state, dark-money groups of illegally coordinating with candidates on campaigns.

American Tradition Partnership was one of the groups the documentary profiled. ATP also has continually challenged the state’s campaign laws.

Schultz wasn’t alone in her disappointment - the Optimum blackout was statewide. A number of subscribers posted on Twitter that they had no signal.

Viewers with different cable service, dish service or antenna signals were able to view the program.

William Marcus, general manager of KUFM/MontanaPBS in Missoula, said he was aware of the problem starting at 4:10 p.m. PBS stations monitor their feed on all signal providers.

“The screen froze and we informed them immediately but it took them until 8:40 to fix it,” Marcus said.

Marcus said Optimum officials told him they were having multiple problems but only the basic cable service was affected.

That doesn’t correspond with the experience of some viewers.

Some who had high definition service had a signal, but others like Bob Brigham of Helena didn’t. He was able to receive other channels. Brigham said he called customer service and waited a long time on hold.

“I finally ended up talking to someone and she blamed PBS,” Brigham said. “The timing makes you wonder since Optimum will be pushing for centrally assessed taxation in the Legislature and they’re likely to be supported by representatives ATP supports.”

Brigham is referring to a recent Legislative interim committee hearing where representatives from cable television, telecommunications companies and oil refineries criticized the way the state taxes centrally assessed companies like theirs.

If the corporations convince the Legislature in restructuring their taxes, property owners could see another tax increase.

Aaron Pruitt, director of Montana PBS/KUSM in Bozeman, said many things can go wrong with broadcasts and it was probably unfortunate timing. He also called Optimum several times Tuesday afternoon.

“Everyone likes to think conspiracy theory,” Pruitt said. “I can’t think of the last time something like this happened with a basic-tier feed, but we would never suggest anything other than a technical problem.”

Optimum spokeswoman Allison Waters refused to comment.

Viewers can still see the documentary on the PBS channel at noon Thursday or 8 p.m. Friday. They also can stream the “Frontline” episode at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/big-sky-big-money.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com.


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