Guest Blog: A Rural Lifeline Not to Be Compromised

Broadcasters could lose a vital source of revenue if exclusivity rules are scrapped

If you were to ask a farmer or rancher where they turn to when they need reliable, local news coverage, they will likely rattle off a few letters, like KELOland [KELO] in
Rapid City, S.D.; KGWN in Cheyenne, Wyo.; or KTVQ in Billings, Mont.

Like myself and many of those across Montana, there are thousands of rural communities around the country that depend on local broadcast stations for community news, market reports, emergency alerts and weather reports. In many cases, broadcast television is the only reliable and accessible source of information for these communities that are outside the scope of broadband networks. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission has reported that more than 55 million Americans – predominantly living in rural regions of the country – lack access to high-speed Internet service at home.

These numbers clearly show a problem, yet, regulators in Washington, D.C., continue to jeopardize the very concept of local broadcast television. Currently, the FCC is reexamining its “exclusivity” rules, which helps broadcasters to fairly negotiate with cable providers for the use of broadcast content. If these rules are changed or tilted to favor the cable industry, broadcasters could lose a vital source of revenue, and see their stations go under around the country.

How would this affect those in Montana and across rural regions of the U.S.? Communities once served by local broadcasters aimed at providing tailored content for their regions would go dark. Instead of seeing local news from communities in Montana, we would be forced to rely solely on news from Denver.  If these exclusivity rules were to be scrapped, cable companies would be able to forego offering local stations as part of their cable packages under these current discussions. What was once considered “local” news will now be beamed in from hundreds of miles away at an urban center, and that is definitely not local. 

The changes being discussed by the FCC would disproportionately affect small, rural markets that depend upon broadcasters for all the reasons previously mentioned. Without this vital source of local information, our communities could find themselves in the dark when it comes to local news. A storm brewing in Montana would not receive the same coverage by a Denver media outlet as one of our local stations.  The ability to have access to real-time reports and local news is a critical component for many in our communities and should be not put at risk.

We shouldn’t have to worry about battling the interests of the cable industry and their efforts to take away our access to local broadcast television. If the FCC – and chairman Tom Wheeler – move forward with rewriting the exclusivity rules, it’s not just broadcasters that will be threatened: it is the farmers and ranchers who wake up each morning to watch the local weather and traffic reports.

When all is said and done, it’s hard to imagine that the FCC would place the interest of the “Big Cable” industry ahead of the critical communications needs of rural Americans.

Linda and her husband work alongside two of their daughters and their respective families on a ranch in north central Montana in the Missouri River Breaks. The Newmans run a cow/calf operation and raise winter wheat and alfalfa hay.  Linda Newman currently serves as president of Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE).