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RFD-TV’s Dramatic Fight for Rural Rights in Cable Rotation

For more than 15 years RFD-TV has been sending its rural-interest programming, powered by farming and livestock shows, rodeo and roots American music, to millions around the country. Most of its viewers live in small-town and rural areas, but it’s also available to America’s largest cities. And yet every so often a big city-headquartered cable carrier will announce that it is dropping the Nashville-based network from its programming.

That’s when RFD-TV president Patrick Gottsch has to battle to keep his list of carriers intact for his viewers. He turns to those viewers for help and they never fail to respond. The latest battle involves the January announcement by Verizon FiOS that it was dropping the RFD-TV network from its network lineup.

“There’s a disconnect, and it’s a growing disconnect, between city and country,” Gottsch says, “where the urban media executives and advertising executives just don’t have the connection with rural America like they used to have.”

Two years ago, he says, he went through a similar situation in Washington, D.C., with the Comcast/Time-Warner merger. “We were called before the Department of Justice. We met with numerous congressmen and senators, especially those with rural ties, and everyone was educated, we thought, about the importance of carrying rural content, and the importance of connecting city with country again. Apparently Verizon FiOS wasn’t paying attention.”

Instead, Gottsch felt blindsided when Verizon dropped the channel. “We had no hint that this was coming,” he says. “I did see last year where they dropped the Outdoor Channel, the Weather Channel and the Sportsman Channel, and I was concerned that they appeared to be dropping rural content. I flew to New York on July 14 last year and met with them, and flat out asked them face to face, ‘Are (you) getting rid of rural content?’ They assured me that they were not. Nothing else was said until Christmas Eve, when we started getting letters and emails from Verizon customers saying that Verizon announced that they were dropping RFD-TV. That was the first we heard of it.”

RFD-TV by the Numbers
$12.5m Average viewership per week
132k Average nightly viewership in primetime
47.3m Pay TV households

According to Billy Frey, chief marketing officer for RFD-TV, the network is available to almost half the cable and satellite viewers in the U.S., and typically is watched by about 12.5 million people per week, an increase of 8% over 2014. “This type of entertainment is their life,” says Frey, referring to the millions of loyal viewers. “That’s why we fight, so it will always be there for them.”

According to Nielsen, RFD-TV averaged 132,000 viewers in primetime for February, ranking 81st among just over 100 cable networks tracked.

On Jan. 28, Gottsch fought back on RFD-TV’s evening show, “Rural America Live.” The format felt a bit like a telethon, with Gottsch fielding calls from viewers all over the country. Cameras focused on a huge pile of binders containing thousands of letters from angry viewers. Many of the letter writers and callers vowed to cancel Verizon FiOS if the company followed through and dropped RFD-TV, even if it meant losing their only source of cable because, they said, RFD-TV was the only source of news and entertainment that responded to their lifestyle.

The following day large ads appeared on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, reading: “Drop Us? Drop You, Verizon.” The ad posed the question, “Does Verizon have a bias against rural independent content?” and suggested that Verizon chairman & CEO Lowell McAdam should resign.

All RFD-TV efforts to continue their Verizon FiOS relationship were for naught. At the end of January, Verizon FiOS dropped the net from its lineup. However, there may be promising news to come following the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to adopt a Notice of Inquiry to study how independent programmers fare in today’s contracting world of cable companies. The FCC press release stated: “This action will help the Commission assess the current state of video programming diversity and determine whether further action is needed to promote independent programming sources.”

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