Media General and DISH Network are currently involved in a retransmission consent dispute affecting 17 markets. Last week, as a potential hurricane was forming off the Gulf Coast, the American Television Alliance called for Media General to restore its signal so citizens could receive local news and weather information. Media General agreed to restore its signal over the weekend, proving once and for all that TV blackouts do indeed exist and ending a favorite talking point of broadcasters.

“Fundamentally, there is no such thing as a ‘black-out’ of broadcast TV programming,” National Association of Broadcasters Chairman Gordon Smith said recently.  “Our programming is always on, and always available to viewers on multiple platforms, including free to over-the-air antenna households.”

It’s a refrain that broadcasters frequently cite while defending the (broken) retransmission consent system.

But let’s go back to Media General’s decision to restore programming because of the tropical storm that was looming in the Gulf. Why did Media General feel compelled to restore programming if that same programming is “always on”? Obviously, blacking out some citizens during a severe weather situation would have been totally irresponsible (and a public relations disaster), thus proving that it is possible for broadcasters to black out some viewers.

For many Americans, broadcast television is not “always available.” In a must-read letter, Mediacom Senior VP Joseph Young destroys the notion that broadcasters cannot black out viewers:

For many Americans in many parts of the country, off-air reception of broadcast signals is not a viable option because of factors like distance from the broadcast station’s transmitter or obstructions such as mountains, hills and neighboring buildings. Indeed, a service like Aereo, which broadcast interest are spending millions to put out of business, could not continue as a viable business if free off-air reception were a real option in Manhattan or the other markets targeted by Aereo.

Later in the letter, Young brilliantly uses online tools to assess the strength of broadcast television signals in Pendleton, Oregon, where Smith once had his office while serving as U.S. Senator. Young writes: “According to the FCC tool, the signal strength at Mr. Smith’s former office location, even assuming the use of an outdoor antenna 30 feet above ground, was only moderate for the Fox-affiliated station, weak for the ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates and non-existent for the PBS station serving the area.” Obviously, very few people would have a 30-foot above ground outdoor antenna, so, as Young points out, the reception for folks with only in-TV or set-top antennas would be even worse.

The plain truth is that broadcasters desperately depend on pay-TV providers to deliver their programming (and advertising) to 90% of America. When they withhold their programming (and play providers off of one another) in the interests of raising retransmission consent fees, they are blacking out viewers.

Always on? Not really.

–B.R.F.