‘Orphan counties,’ and a battle over what local news really means

Durango, Colorado—the seat of La Plata and one of America's "orphan counties."

Jill and Michael Fischer live seven miles outside the city of Durango, a historic mountain town of nearly 20,000 and the seat of La Plata County in southwest Colorado. When they turn on their TV for local news, however, evening broadcasts—about community events, the weather, and most notably politics—arrive via satellite from Albuquerque, New Mexico, more than 200 miles away. The couple rarely sees substantial public affairs coverage about their own state’s legislature. During election season, they receive TV ads and coverage for political campaigns in New Mexico, not Colorado.

For years, some La Plata residents have vented their frustrations about out-of-state news in the editorial pages of the family-owned Durango Herald newspaper. “Albuquerque TV is oppressing us,” ran the headline on one such letter. Another resident wrote that Durango is “still being held hostage by the Nielsen Holdings Co. and many Albuquerque television stations.”

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La Plata has been in Albuquerque’s Designated Market Area (DMA) for decades because that’s where Nielsen put it. Nielsen, the private data analytics company, creates DMAs nationwide, which help set advertising rates and determine the nation’s top media markets.

In 2016, following a tweak to federal law, La Plata became the first local US government to petition the FCC to receive in-state programming beamed in to local TVs by satellite. The FCC’s Media Bureau granted La Plata’s request for what’s called a market modification, which gave satellite providers the option of carrying programming from Denver, the Colorado capital.

Broadcasters in Albuquerque, motivated by a concern of losing a portion of their audience, asked the agency to reconsider. Albuquerque is closer to Durango, the New Mexico TV stations reasoned, and “local” means more about proximity and responsiveness than it does state lines. An FCC filing by the Albuquerque stations argued that “there is no basis to suggest that all Coloradans—from Denver to Durango—share the same ‘local’ needs and interests just because they live in the same state.”

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As the Albuquerque stations balked, La Plata residents turned their frustrations on the FCC, and submitted hundreds of letters to its online public docket. “I feel shut out of what is going on in my own state because we do not have access to Denver television,” wrote a woman from Bayfield. “Granted I live in a forgotten corner of the state, but the goings on with in the state is essential,” wrote someone from Durango. “We would like to be informed voters,” one couple wrote. “I don’t care about New Mexico politics or their elections. We want to see what is going on in our state capital.” Residents have cast their plight as a “ridiculous situation,” “absurd,” and “blatantly obvious at election time.”

Jill Fischer, a paralegal, added her voice to the chorus. “We are in desperate need of Denver programming in La Plata County,” she wrote in 2016. “How are we expected to be educated voters if the only information we receive comes out of New Mexico! We need Colorado news to know what is going on in our state!”

La Plata is still waiting for the FCC to make its final call. For now, some residents have found awkward workarounds, from lying to their satellite provider about where they live to taking home a digital antenna from the local public library.

Fischer doesn’t subscribe to those short-term fixes, and is cynical about a long-term solution from the FCC. She’s lived in La Plata for nearly 20 years and has long heard things might change.

“It’s a joke,” she says. “We’ve been waiting for so long. We’ve been promised so much.”

 

As citizens in this democracy we need to be well informed. If we don’t have access to what’s happening in our state and local governments, it’s hard to fulfill our responsibilities to participate and vote.

 

LA PLATA, which has a population of nearly 56,000, is an “orphan county,” one of many that pock the US—from the Berkshires of Massachusetts to the northern border of Georgia, through the mountains of Wyoming, parts of Kentucky, and beyond. Some orphan county residents “receive no news coverage and political advertising for their own statewide races, irrelevant information pertaining to candidates in the neighboring state who will not appear on their ballots, or both,” according to a 2010 study published in Political Communication. The same study, by political scientists Keena Lipsitz and Jeremy M. Teigen, estimated that orphan county residents comprise more than 10 percent of the US electorate.

Orphan counties, Lipsitz and Teigen wrote, “have lower turnout rates than non-orphan counties, and … this difference is explained by lower levels of interest in the campaign stemming from exposure to irrelevant information.” Despite the implications for civic engagement and the erosion of local news, Lipsitz tells CJR the paper remains pretty obscure.

“We know this from all of the research on campaigns and political communication in general that information matters,” she says. “If people don’t know anything about the candidates, if they have no sense of what’s going on in their state capitals and what their representatives are doing, they can’t hold them accountable. So I think it’s a serious problem.”

TV viewers in some orphan counties have pleaded with their political leaders for years to do something about the lack of in-state TV news. Members of Congress have tried to help fill home-state broadcast gaps with tweaks to federal law, but Nielsen’s national media market map still looks like a paper target blasted with buckshot.

Should the FCC uphold La Plata’s market modification, Albuquerque broadcasters argue the decision could upset the way DMAs are drawn by Nielsen. “If they let this happen, it is going to be counties all over this country that are going to want their DMA changed,” Paula Maes, president of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, says. Nielsen representatives did not respond to multiple email requests for comment, and the National Association of Broadcasters declined to weigh in.

Don Lowery, a Nielsen senior VP of community engagements, said after this story was published that the company created DMAs in order to connect advertisers with buyers, the FCC adopted its system, and Nielsen doesn’t have any authority to change it. If the FCC agrees to petitions that change media markets, including in La Plata, then Nielsen would work with those involved to continue accurately measuring audiences, Lowery said.

The La Plata debate hinges in part on how Congress, the FCC, news producers, and TV viewers in parts of rural America define what “local” really means. In 2014, Colorado US Senator Michael Bennet, now a Democratic presidential candidate, worked to pass STELAR—the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization. The measure gave county governments the ability to cite a lack of in-state public affairs coverage as a reason to bring new broadcasters into their satellite space, and it added a factor for the FCC to consider when hearing petitions: access to “in-state” TV programming. The act enabled La Plata to request TV news from Denver-based outlets.

“This is a quiet sleeper issue that affects a lot of people that not a lot of people know about,” Riki Parikh, a former Bennet policy advisor who worked with the senator on the issue, says. “As citizens in this democracy we need to be well informed. If we don’t have access to what’s happening in our state and local governments, it’s hard to fulfill our responsibilities to participate and vote.”

In 2017, New Mexico broadcasters appealed to the FCC to reverse its decision on La Plata, an act that halted the market modification process. STELAR, argued attorneys for the New Mexico broadcasters, requires the FCC to weigh La Plata’s need for in-state news against other factors, such as local viewing patterns, whether Denver TV stations historically broadcast in the county, and whether Denver stations provide coverage or “local service” to the community. The FCC’s decision gave outsize weight to La Plata’s request for in-state news, lawyers wrote. In doing so, it prioritized in-state public affairs and sports coverage from Denver over the La Plata news and weather reports delivered from Albuquerque.

“If La Plata County can succeed in adding the Denver Stations solely because the Denver Stations provide programs of interest to Coloradans generally, other counties can follow the same blueprint,” wrote lawyers for the New Mexico broadcasters. That blueprint could change the fortunes of TV stations in the Albuquerque-Santa Fe DMA, which currently sits at 46 in the nation’s top 50 markets. That top-50 position can be attractive to advertisers, and losing audience share could mean a drop in the rankings.

Michelle Donaldson, who manages KOB-TV in Albuquerque, says while she sympathizes with Durango residents, the potential of losing them as viewers would be “just like having a piece of yourself cut off.”

Along with concerns for politics coverage relevant to their state, orphan county residents have also complained about a lack of access to their state’s sports teams. When the Broncos play, for instance, Denver stations carry their games, and Albuquerque stations do not. “We can be honest about that, I know that’s a huge driver,” Donaldson tells CJR in an interview. “Over the 20 years that I’ve been dialed into this issue, it certainly has been a lot of football talk.”

Though it’s headquartered in a different state, KOB is on the ground in La Plata County when big news breaks, she says, and is there covering local news for the community. In 2015, when a major mine spill turned a La Plata County river mustard yellow, KOB was quickly over the scene in its helicopter, sharing photos and videos with outlets in Colorado. “We’ve been delivering a service to that community for decades,” Donaldson says. “When it comes to having a local news commitment, we’re doing that.” If the FCC alters the media market in a way that limits KOB’s satellite service to La Plata, Donaldson argues, residents there could be left with less local news than before.

“The whole issue opens a can of worms not just for the Colorado and New Mexico state line,” she says. “These markets in these orphan counties are all over our country. And it gets back to the heart of how do you define community?

 

Even if the FCC rules in La Plata’s favor, the satellite companies wouldn’t be forced to carry Denver programming into the county; they would merely have the ability.

 

LAST YEAR, as statewide political campaigns burned up the airwaves and backroads of Colorado, Phil Weiser was on a campaign swing through southwestern Colorado. Weiser, a former telecommunications lawyer and an Obama-era Justice Department appointee, was running for the state Attorney General’s office. In Durango, he got an earful from residents about what it’s like living in an orphan county. He heard it again when he sat for a meeting with the Herald’s editorial board.

“This is a pain point for them,” Weiser tells CJR about the Coloradans who have satellite dishes and can’t get Denver TV. He acknowledges that not being able to watch Broncos football is part of that pain, but so is the news coverage. During his campaign, Weiser told voters and the editorial board that he would do what he could if they helped elect him. He won in a blue wave election year for Colorado, earning about 4,000 more votes in La Plata County than his opponent. (He lost neighboring Montezuma, Colorado’s only other orphan county.)

In March, Weiser flew to Washington and met with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Weiser says he urged Pai to take up the matter quickly and rule in La Plata’s favor. Should the FCC do so, then Weiser says he’ll try and convene Denver broadcasters and two satellite companies, DISH Network and DirecTV, to work out arrangements. But spokespeople for the satellite companies say they are taking a wait-and-see approach until the FCC makes a decision, which it has so far declined to do. Even if the FCC rules in La Plata’s favor, the satellite companies wouldn’t be forced to carry Denver programming into the county; they would merely have the ability.

Weiser says he left his meeting with Pai “very comforted that this is on their agenda and we are going to see action.”

Three years ago, when La Plata first petitioned the FCC, the county argued it was a timely request given that 2016 was an election year. Since then Colorado has held two statewide general elections, and is gearing up for a third in November that will include a US Senate contest, legislative races, and whatever statewide ballot initiatives might emerge.

“In theory, they can just sit and do nothing,” Weiser says of the commission. “The FCC unfortunately isn’t always a model of alacrity in their decision making. Part of why it’s important that we be applying pressure, voicing our concerns, is we need the FCC to act.”

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This story was updated with a comment from Nielsen.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.