Broadcasters and the Myth “There is No Such Thing” as Blackouts

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.

Congressional Leaders Speak Out on Blackouts

ATVA applauds Rep. Ann Eshoo and Sen. Edward Markey for stepping forward to protect their constituents from CBS’ outrageous actions. We hope the FCC will take note of the many leaders and consumers that have called for action this week. We need retrans reform now.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren

“With this blackout entering its third week, it is obvious that the current state-of-affairs is unfair to consumers. It is time we reexamine whether our current laws offer the level of protection they deserve.” Read more

Rep. Michael Grimm

“…I am deeply concerned that withholding Intenet content by CBS is just a maneuver to advance its negotiation position. The households in my Congressional District who use TWC broadband, whether or not they also use TWC for their cable service, are denied access to CBS content on the Internet.” Read more

Rep. Jim McDermott

“As a member of Congress representing Seattle, the home of so many companies and institutions with an important stake in a free and open internet, I am troubled to see internet access being used as a weapon in a commercial contract dispute affecting television.” Read more

Rep. Grace Napolitano

“I am hopeful that CBS and Time Warner Cable can resolve their retransmission consent dispute soon. Time Warner Cable reaches over 105,000 homes and businesses throughout our 32nd congressional district, and consumers who pay their monthly cable bills to enjoy their programs of choice over TV or the Internet should have access to all shows.” Read more

Rep. Ann Eshoo

“It has been my long held belief that consumers should not be held hostage when retransmission disputes break down.” Read more

Sen. Edward Markey

“A consumer’s choice of cable television provider should not be tied to her ability to access Internet content that is freely available to other consumers.  In such instances, consumers lose their freedom to access the Internet content of their choice.  This is an anti-consumer result that I urge the Commission to investigate, and I encourage the Commission to actively defend Internet freedom and consumer rights.” Read more

Rep. Chris Gibson

“I appreciate the complicated nature of commercial negotiations and understand both parties are acting in good faith and on behalf of their subscribers and viewers. However, my concern is that consumers in my district are ultimately being harmed by this ongoing dispute.” Read more

Broadcaster Blackout Breaking Holiday Spirit

Four Stations Go Dark Despite Offer to Extend Agreement

Washington D.C.  December 15, 2011 – Earlier this week, Cordillera refused to extend a retransmission fee agreement with Time Warner Cable, blacking out four Corpus Christi TV stations.  TWC offered to extend the contract through March to avoid viewer disruption, but Cordillera said ‘bah humbug’ to that and pulled the plug.  The Cordillera blackout comes on the heels of Hearst’s threat to shutter their signal in eight markets this month.  Violating the Christmas spirit is just the latest example of bad broadcaster behavior.  The only way to protect consumers is for Congress and the FCC to reform outdated retransmission consent rules.

The Corpus Christi stations affected include an NBC, Telemundo and CW affiliate, plus one independent station.

All press inquiries should be directed to Mike Heimowitz at michael.heimowitz@porternovelli.com.

Scrooged Across America- Hearst Threatening Retrans Blackouts In Several Markets

Washington D.C.  December 5, 2011 – Hearst Television is already ruining the holiday spirit, threatening to black out stations across the nation to gain leverage in retransmission consent negotiations.   The broadcaster posted online warnings to viewers in at least eight markets late last week, threatening takedowns on multiple cable systems.   Congress and the FCC need to reform outdated rules that give broadcasters the right to hold viewers hostage during business disputes.

Hearst Stations Threatening Blackouts:  KCRA/KQCA (Sacramento), KCCI (Des Moines), WYFF (Greenville), KOCO (Oklahoma City), WGLA (Lancaster, PA), WMUR (Manchester, NH), KLWE/KMBC (Kansas City), KOAT (Albuquerque)

All press inquiries should be directed to Mike Heimowitz at michael.heimowitz@porternovelli.com.