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.
Retrans Blackouts During Disasters Hurt All
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.
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.
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.