NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Best Or Worst Of Times? Stay Tuned

It would be tempting to say these are the worst of times for traditional media ― for the long-established newspapers and broadcasters who come to mind first when media fortunes are tossed about. Logical, but not quite certain: You never know what’s just around the corner.

Nevertheless, the news grows ever more dismal for our mass media. While newspapers’ dwindling fortunes are played out mostly behind the scenes ― they hate covering their own bad news ― television’s struggles are out there for all to see …

Or not see, if you (like we) subscribe to DirecTV. The latest mini-apocalypse in our corner of the planet occurred at 11:59 p.m. June 1, when the two-headed TV powerhouse of Forum Communications Co., WDAY-TV and WDAZ-TV pulled its programming off the satellite.

Despite ominous crawls across the bottom of our screen, we ― and, perhaps, a large contingent of fellow subscribers and local advertisers ― were taken by surprise. We’d doubted that the leading ABC affiliate in our market would scorn 15 percent of its viewers (according to its own numbers) in a corporate game of “chicken.”

Wrong. Our home and some 25,000 others in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota were caught up in a rarefied power struggle between big (in local terms) and much, much bigger corporations.

Remember playing “chicken”? Dreamed up by high school boys seeking to prove their mettle, this face-off pitted two drivers guiding steeds of steel and rubber in a headlight-to-headlight duel on a lightly supervised back road. The foolhardier idiot who kept his pedal to the metal won … if and when his opponent flinched first and swerved.

To those of us who watch ― rather than make ― TV, that seems like what we’re caught up in today: an increasingly shrill game of “chicken,” pitting the equivalent of a 1949 Studebaker half-ton pickup against the space shuttle Atlantis … or perhaps a hardy Hobbit standing up to Godzilla.

At stake, largely unknown outside the broadcast industry, are the fees local stations are paid by the cable and satellite systems for the right to retransmit their product ― the same programming distributed over the air for free, from the old days of rooftop antennas and rabbit ears right up to digital gadgets for HD.

How times have changed! From the earliest days of cable TV, broadcasters lobbied relentlessly for laws to require cable to carry the local signals. Without that coverage, TV stations’ ability to sell advertising would have evaporated.

When they finally won their battle in 1992, local broadcasters got everything they wanted … and more. Along with the mandate to carry local channels, the law added one very special clause. The cable (and now satellite) companies were required to obtain the locals’ express permission to retransmit their broadcasts.

Thus opened the door to an all-new source of profits for local stations. Their financial model previously offered programming to the masses at no charge whatsoever ― using their eyeballs, so to speak, to entice businesses to sell to their audience by purchasing advertising. Ad sales were expected to cover all of the costs of their programs and production.

Now, though, broadcasters could negotiate for a slice of the money these newfangled cable guys collected from customers. In other words, they could now get paid for what people with had been receiving over the airwaves absolutely free.

And time passed. Satellite dishes sprouted on roofs and balconies. A second cable provider, Midcontinent, began to vie with Cable ONE in more and more of the metro market. AT&T swallowed both DirecTV and Dish Network. Prices rose; channel choices mushroomed; and local TV stations faced competitive threats they could never have imagined in the days of “I Love Lucy.”

So, today, picture our two valiant opponents locked in the local battle for broadcast bucks: The lion-hearted broadcasting behemoth of the Red River Valley … versus the largest broadcast satellite service provider, DirecTV. The market for WDAY and WDAZ is estimated at about 200,000 households. AT&T’s DirecTV has 35 million subscribers. Even with regional cables and Dish riding shotgun, plus those over-the-air antennas on sale at Walmart, it’s hard to give even odds for this particular bout.

But these are desperate times. Never underestimate the valor of a determined underdog. And so, 11:59 p.m. June 1, channels 6 and 8 went dark on DirecTV. Our hometown metaphoric David, Forum Communications, had reached the end of its patience with the global Goliath. And it did have one nice stone to fit into its slingshot. The Golden State Warriors would play the Cleveland Cavaliers the next night in Game 1 of the NBA finals, broadcast on (drum roll) ABC.

But life goes on. Basketball fans across the valley grumbled, but they ganged up with friends who had other providers … or headed for happy sports bars.

Local news mavens got their fix of Kevin Wallevand via simulcasts on WDAY Radio and the station’s own website. John Wheeler’s legion caught his forecasts via WDAY’s StormTracker app. “General Hospital” and “Bachelorette” addicts could keep up by streaming them online.

And as for the substantial and worrisome segment who are already lost to traditional broadcast TV … they never even noticed. A good chunk of younger adults no longer even own televisions.

Meanwhile, the advertisers who continue to pay mightily to reach customers on the ‘DAY and ‘DAZ airwaves lost about 15 percent of the viewers — DirecTV subscribers — from the audiences they’re paying to reach. They, too, have multitudes of other choices.

This kind of standoff has become increasingly common across the country. Local broadcasters are facing the same competitive squeeze that has brought newspapers to their knees. There are just too many ways to gobble news and entertainment, but only the same old 24 hours in the day.

The owner of WDAY and WDAZ, of course, is working hard to convince us they’re the good guys. I hope they win. Underdogs are my very favorite breed of hound. But the fact is that they ― not DirecTV ― made the decision to pull the plug.

Forum Communications would have dissatisfied DirecTV subscribers use this lemon to make lemonade: Switch to CableOne, Midcontinent or Dish Network. But there are two big old flies circling that jug. One is that many (most?) of us are under contract and would pay hefty fees to jump ship early, even if we wanted to.

And here’s the other: Just because DirecTV is the villain in today’s retransmission-fee struggle, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent the same hassle from reoccuring with the others. This isn’t the first time. Remember when KXJB-TV, may it rest in peace, sat out most of 2009 from the cable lineup? Last year, a breakdown between the Dish Network and a media group with 129 stations blocked them in 36 states. Cox Cable blacked out local stations in nine markets on the eve of the 2016 Super Bowl, driving their owner to cry “uncle.”

This wrestling match is not a one-off, and none of the alternatives is even close to being a sure bet.

By the time you read this, WDAY and WDAZ may be back on DirecTV. Or maybe not. One way or the other, the Hanson household budget ― and your own ― will continue to pay the very same monthly fees. Businesses seeking to reach us will still be charged full freight for ads that many in their theoretical target audience will have never see. And a growing share of us will simply be moving on to the Web.

It’s the paradox of this golden age of communication. While technology leaps thoughtlessly forward, delivering dazzling surprises and delights, some familiar faces we’ve long trusted are being left behind in the digital dust … reduced to squabbling over the remnants of their proud, storied traditions.

These are the best of times for new forms of media. And for the rest ― would it be fair to conclude these are the worst? The landscape is changing before our eyes. Stay tuned.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — The Best Or Worst Of Times? Stay Tuned”

  • Larry Gauper June 7, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Well stated, Nancy, in your classic style of clear-headed writing. You state the situation accurately and as complete as the information publicly available affords or that you can dig up. There is one piece of information that’s always missing from the stations when this kind of dispute arises: nobody tells us the AMOUNT in dispute. How MUCH is WDAY-ForumComm asking for from Direct-TV or from Cableone or Dish when they’re involved in a dispute? They all cry about “fairness.” But how in the world is the payor, i.e., the viewer supposed to know what’s fair? And by how MUCH will satellite or cable bills go UP? Is the station being greedy or is the distributor of the signal? These local signals, of course, are available free if one wants to go through the work of installing an antenna (retro to the 1950s) and then switching back and forth from antenna to satellite/cable IF the content is worth the effort. All in all, you shared some useful history in understanding this needless battle in which the CONSUMER is the victim. Thanks!


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