DAYTON, OHIO — In the wee hours of Sunday morning, 24-year-old Connor Betts of Bellbrook, Ohio, opened fire in front of a bar known for its late-night dancing and drinks, Ned Peppers. Bouncers and venue security quickly sprung into action, while Dayton police officers neutralized the gunman within a minute.
The tragedy unfolded just steps away from iHeartRadio‘s Dayton studios and offices. But, it was local television that sprung into action. The market’s longtime leader went into overdrive, and as of 11pm Sunday had only stopped its wall-to-wall coverage for CBS’s 60 Minutes ahead of live coverage of a candlelight vigil in the Oregon District, where Ned Peppers is located.
This was Cox Media Group‘s WHIO-7. The two other TV groups serving Miami Valley viewers also did a commendable job.
There’s just one problem: Not all Dayton DMA TV viewers could see what the Nexstar Media Group NBC affiliate was doing. Why? Blame a protracted retransmission consent deal that is now putting lives at risk.
Through the overnight hours and from sunrise and beyond, WHIO — along with staff from the Cox-owned Dayton Daily News — posted regular updates of the mass shooting as they unfolded.
By 8pm Sunday, it was known that nine individuals including the shooter were dead. More than two dozen people were injured. Among the dead: The 22-year-old sister of the suspected shooter.
WHIO worked to provide viewers with a full snapshot of who Connor Betts was, and perhaps what his motive was.
Similarly, “Dayton 24/7 Now” — the branded newscasts from Sinclair Broadcast Group‘s co-owned WKEF-22 and Cunningham Broadcasting JSA partner WRGT-45 — worked hard to provide viewers the freshest updates on the second tragedy to strike the city in two months. It was in late May when a series of tornadoes lashed the north side of Dayton; extreme damage is still easily visible today from I-75.
For Nexstar-owned WDTN-2, staff busily updated the station’s website across the day, providing links to an Oregon District Tragedy Fund while dutifully offering coverage of the candelight vigil, press conferences and other shooting-related coverage across Sunday.
For patrons and staff at Jimmie’s Ladder 11, a popular pub with live entertainment highly active as a fundraiser for such groups as Alzheimer’s Association, information courtesy of WDTN couldn’t be had.
The reason: Jimmie’s Ladder 11 is a DirecTV customer. As such, WDTN cannot be offered on AT&T-owned DirecTV because the station’s owner, Nexstar, does not have a valid retransmission consent agreement in place with the DBS provider.
WDTN is just one of dozens of Nexstar stations that, by law, AT&T’s TV services cannot offer subscribers.
Another station being prevented from users of DirecTV, AT&T TV NOW and U-Verse is KTSM-9, the NBC affiliate in El Paso, Texas.
As a result, local customers in the El Paso DMA who wanted to know about a mass shooting on Saturday that took 20 lives and injured 26 people couldn’t go to the NBC affiliate serving their community.
While viewers were not prevented from learning about the local events in their respective communities, as other TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and cable news networks could be accessed for the latest details, the absence of any media outlet during a time of crisis is alarming.
As staff at Jimmie’s Ladder 11 prepared for a last call from the kitchen and bar at 7:15pm ahead of a 8pm sharp close to allow all staff to attend the Oregon District candlelight vigil, WHIO-7 was shown on two of the four TVs, with audio coming from the TVs showing this station.
WDTN could have been a choice. But, this choice was not available.
While this is hardly a tragedy on the same level as what occurred early Sunday, and on Saturday in El Paso, it’s a sad reminder that dollars and politics control what viewers can watch.
This is unacceptable in a time of crisis. While it would have been illegal for AT&T-owned DirecTV, AT&T TV NOW and U-Verse to suddenly bring WDTN-2 or KTSM-9 back without a retransmission agreement, a “crisis management” clause or exclusion from Congress — had it not started a five-week summer recess — could have brought all of the vital information available to all in a time of extreme need.
Or, AT&T and Nexstar lawyers could have immediately gotten on the phone and hashed out a DMA-specific truce.
That didn’t happen. It only makes a nasty fight over money even uglier, because locals were prevented from learning about why the tragedy happen, who was responsible, and what the aftermath was from a station they may prefer over the others in town.
Yes, AT&T can be a hard negotiator unwilling to budge on new retrans deals, with fingerpointing from the NAB and pro-broadcast media cognoscenti readily available at a moment’s notice.
Yes, Nexstar in Q1 2019 enjoyed net income largely due to growth in retransmission fee revenue, offsetting diminished advertising revenue.
Now, after a month without a new deal, the sandbox fight has reached a whole new level. Lives are at risk. Public safety is threatened.
Action must be taken, and now. Should a similar act occur in another Nexstar market, more viewers would be in the dark on vitally important news and information because of a “blackout” that makes the local viewer the victim, and TV station owners and distributors the perpetrator.
We hear the refrain every time a mass shooting transpires.
It’s now time to apply that to the broadcast TV companies demanding perhaps too much more for their stations, and to MVPDs and DBS providers who steadfastly refuse to negotiate while giving funds to Locast, an app that circumvents retransmission fee deals by giving over-the-air signals to members via the internet.
Make a deal. End the feud. Do it for Dayton, and El Paso, and countless other communities that need you — and don’t need to hate you.
The views expressed by RBR+TVBR are those of the editorial board only and not of Streamline Publishing or its other publications.
Adam R Jacobson authored this Observation from Dayton, Ohio, where Streamline Publishing’s Media Division is holding its 2020 planning meetings through Tuesday, August 6.