Retrans Blackouts During Disasters Hurt All

To allow station blackouts in the middle of a retrans fight when hurricanes or other disasters loom as Lilly Broadcasting and Hearst did is not too smart. In addition to possibly depriving viewers of access to vital information, it gives retrans foes more ammunition in their fight against this valuable second revenue stream.

Don’t be stupid, broadcasters.

When a hurricane approaches, make sure that cable and satellite operators serving subscribers in its path are able to carry your signals even if you are in the middle of an ugly retransmission consent fight.

You’re always talking about how vital your local news is to public safety. You can’t just disappear then when the communities you serve are faced with devastation and death.

You would think that this would go without saying. But we learned again this week that it doesn’t.

With the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still shaken badly by Hurricane Maria last Saturday night, Lilly Broadcasting’s news and weather cable service, One Caribbean Television, went dark on the Dish Network because of a retrans/carriage fee standoff also involving Lilly’s stations in Erie, Pa.; Honolulu; and Elmira, N.Y.

Dish immediately raced out a press release blasting Lilly for abandoning it responsibilies.


“Lilly is further blinding the citizens of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands at this time, showing an unbelievable lack of compassion,” said Dish EVP Warren Schlichting in the release. “During this humanitarian crisis, it’s critical for people to have access to more information, not less, whether one home or 10,000 can access these stations.”

It stopped short of blaming the Lilly family for whipping up the storm itself.

As our news partner Satellite News Channel pointed out, Lilly told Dish on Sunday it would restore One Caribbean to its lineup to help those who still had access to Dish “keep informed as to what is happening in their region.”

As practical matter, the loss of One Caribbean for less than a day was not a big deal, given the widespread loss of power on the islands and, I presume, widespread loss of the flimsy satellite dishes.

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But the public relations damage had been done.

On Monday morning the American Cable Association, which has been waging a never-ending campaign to win retrans relief in Washington, jumped in to make sure everybody on its email list was aware of what had happened.

The next day, citing the blackout, it asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to ban broadcasters from withholding signals during disasters, implying that in their avarice broadcasters could not be trusted.

It really poured it on. The FCC “should find it intolerable for a broadcaster seeking to leverage higher retransmission consent fees to block viewers in a state of emergency from accessing critical, and potentially life-saving, information. “It is no answer in such a situation for the broadcaster to suggest that viewers should switch providers or install antennas in order to access this information. Nobody in circumstances such as those faced by viewers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands can prioritize switching television providers or installing antennas over securing such necessities as water, food and shelter.”

On Wednesday, ACA announced a new campaign to help its members in PR battles surrounding retrans negotiations this fall and winter. The campaign comprises mostly an “informational toolkit” on the many evils that retransmission consent brings to consumers.

I’d like to say the Lilly case was an anomaly. But as ACA pointed out, Hearst Television, which normally can be counted on to do the right thing, did the wrong thing last month when Hurricane Irma threatened Florida. It allowed WESH Orlando to go dark on the Cox Communications system there because of a retrans fight involving five markets.

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WESH was off less than a day before Hearst and Cox settled their differences, but, again, the damage was done.

“The callous decision by Hearst Television to pull the plug on tens of thousands of TV viewers as the most dangerous storm in history looms is appalling,” crowed Trent Duffy of the American Television Alliance, a consortium of cable and satellite companies dedicated to reining in retrans fees.

This week, we recognized with a few articles the 25th anniversary of the final passage of the Cable Act of 1992, the law that imbued broadcasters with retransmission consent rights.

As I and others have said, retrans saved broadcasting by generating a second revenue stream that S&P Global says has so far pumped $40 billion and will contribute another $70 billion by 2023.

All those billions are coming out of the pockets of cable and satellite operators and many of the cable networks that they carry.

They do not like it.

So, they will continue to resist retrans increases and fight for changes in the law and FCC rules that might constrict broadcasters’ ability to negotiate for retrans payments. To prevail, they know they must win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers.

They have been at this for a long time now. The have developed plenty of arguments for why fees should not grow and why “reforms” are needed.

Broadcasters, take care not to give them additional ones.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (19)

Leave a Reply

Wagner Pereira says:

October 6, 2017 at 3:34 pm

👍 Would have never happened under Hearst/David Barrett

Brian Bussey says:

October 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Whatever retrains increase stations received for playing hard…. will not matter. it will cost them 10 times that amount in promotions to restore the trust of their viewers.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 6, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Interesting comment – as it has not shown the impact on rating leaders you suggest. But then again, this is why Salespeople such as yourself are not in charge of Programming or Business Decisions.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 6, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    Thank goodness a person like yourself – one who supposedly went to college but doesn’t know the difference in proper and non-proper nouns – is not in charge of news operations… the entire country would be illiterate (although that’s the sort that watches Faux News, where you are head janitor)…

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 6, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    As stated previously, a janitor at Fox is more important in Broadcasting than the owner of a wannabe SD Analog Cable Station serving the extras from Deliverance in Northern Georgia.

    John Livingston says:

    October 6, 2017 at 11:01 pm

    That’s Fox News get it right and more people are smarter watching Fox News poll after poll has shown that and studies as well. So your claim is wrong.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 6, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    @Insider: Still having trouble on which nouns should be capitalized I see. Do you just randomly pick out nouns to capitalize or is there some sort of plan here?

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 6, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    @Megatron81: LMAO!! You prove my point as evidenced from the extremely poor sentence structure in your response. Did any of you so-called “insiders” or play-pretend “broadcasters” take any English classes?

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 6, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    By the, for all you Faux News lovers: “STUDY: Watching Only Fox News Makes You Less Informed Than No News At All” (

    John Livingston says:

    October 11, 2017 at 12:00 am

    Being the spelling & grammar police which is overrated online my sentence structure wasn’t poor it was pretty good just like my spelling. That article you posted is fake news without any facts or proof polls after polls and studies say that people that watch MESSNBC aren’t that smart oh I mean MSNBC.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 12, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    OK, so you post a response riddled with a run-on sentence and rife with poor sentence structure to counter my charge of, uh, poor sentence structure. Yet folks, real life is stranger than fiction.

Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

October 6, 2017 at 4:59 pm

On a serious note, I agree with Mr. Jessell. It negates the argument “broadcasters” use of being important life lines of information during disasters. People and their safety should be more important than retrans dollars during emergencies. Isn’t that what we, the people, allow “broadcasters” to use our publicly-owned frequencies for?

Don Thompson says:

October 6, 2017 at 5:42 pm

What’s really true is this: If cable operators had used their market power in the 1990s to say to TV station owners that had elected retransmission consent, “You have to pay us for carriage or we will black you out,” the NAB would have done everything within its power to reduce cable operators to vassals of the state that couldn’t buy a roll of toilet paper without permission from the state public utility commission. Today, TV stations black out cable operators and satellite TV providers — even during weather disasters — on a sudden whim and with reckless disregard for public safety. American Cable Association’s “TV Ransom” campaign will do its best to demonstrate that Washington, D.C., policymakers should not reward TV stations’ greed and smug arrogance. Mr. Jessell, it’s too late for @nabtweets and the TV #cashcasters: Stupidity is an incurable disease. Please Follow Me On Twitter: @TedatACA or @AmericanCable

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 6, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    But then who will pay American Cable Ass. Ted Hearn’s Green Fees if the NAB goes away.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 6, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    LMAO!! Once again “Insider” shows his (its?) lack of reading comprehension. He (it?) can’t grasp the concept of proper and non-proper nouns AND has no comprehension of the points other posters are making. This would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    October 7, 2017 at 12:51 am

    A) Cable needs the right to put “broadcast” channels into a separate tier which consumers can buy or not, thus saving some customers around $10/month; B) Cable then should develop set top boxes which can integrate tuning of cable channels and reception of OTA channels from a consumer’s home antenna. This should be combined and displayed in a cohesive, seamless onscreen guide; C) Consumers who have an antenna will save about $10/month; D) Consumers who do not have antennas or live far from metro areas can decide whether they want to pay for a broadcast tier or not.

John Livingston says:

October 6, 2017 at 11:06 pm

I’d have a problem if it was all local stations that were blacked out because of retrans as long as you have 3 local stations you can still get the same info. But yeah I think they should hold off on pulling a station from cable or Sat TV if there is a major storm coming where I live don’t get many storms other than snow.

Fred E Walker says:

October 8, 2017 at 10:20 am

The re-trans fights hurt everyone. To consumers, it’s just 2 greedy corporations (everyone knows their local station is just part of a big corp.. usually publicly traded) duking it out for more $ & they’re caught in the crosshairs. No one looks good when this happens and it’s probably driving, even more, viewers to other news/video platforms.

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