Weekly Column

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When we want to learn what’s on the news, most of us turn on our television. According to a Pew Research poll, television is still America’s favorite platform for news consumption. When Nebraskans need to know the latest about events taking place in their community, the weather, or broadcast coverage of local sports, it is essential that they have access to their local television networks. 

Unfortunately, when many Nebraskans turn on their TV, they don’t see news coverage in their local community – they see programming from cities like Denver or Sioux Falls.

Dianne Johnson, a rancher in western Nebraska, was flipping through her channels for local news, only to see reports of crime and car accidents in Colorado. The Denver television station that was providing the broadcast is located over 200 miles away from her home.

As Dianne told the Associated Press, “If we actually had local news, we would watch it. But all we get is Colorado drug busts and stories about who got murdered in Denver. It has nothing to do with us.”

This doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair to the Americans who are particularly impacted in the most rural areas – far from the reach of cable networks, over-the-air antennas, or high speed internet, and heavily reliant on satellite communications.

Right now, there are 16 counties primarily located in the Panhandle that are experiencing this issue. These counties are commonly referred to as “orphan” counties, which means they are assigned to market areas outside of Nebraska. When pay-TV providers do not, or cannot, carry the out of market stations that these residents want to watch, they are deprived of programming that affects their family and community.

This year, we’ve seen firsthand the importance of media coverage to our local communities. The bomb cyclone, blizzards, and major flooding last spring brought life-threatening conditions that were changing by the minute. In many cases, the lives of Nebraskans depended on their ability to keep tabs on critical weather alerts and follow safety directions.

Access to breaking local news is vital for Nebraskans, especially in times of need.

Local broadcast programming creates invaluable connections for our rural communities. Whether your friend’s small business is being featured on the morning news, you need to know about delayed school openings due to icy roads, or you’re looking for the outcome of the latest high school basketball game, you often need to watch your local TV station.

Residents in Nebraska’s orphan counties also are unable to follow local elections or lawmaking decisions taking place in the Nebraska Unicameral – actions that result in direct, tangible changes to our communities. Lack of access leads to less civic engagement and less informed citizens.

That’s why I recently introduced a bipartisan, common-sense solution: the Western Expanded In-State Television (WEST) Access Act. The bill would enable satellite TV access to local, in-state broadcast programming for our state’s western orphan counties. It is important to note that this legislation would allow satellite subscribers in these orphan counties to receive their local news, in addition to the existing out-of-state programming they currently receive, such as NFL games. I’m proud to join in this important effort with my friend, Congressman Adrian Smith, who has introduced an identical version of the bill in the House of Representatives.

We often hear that rural America is forgotten. An absence of relevant, local programming demonstrates exactly how.

Nebraska communities – no matter where they are located – deserve respect, attention, and access to local television coverage. Congress needs to make sure this issue is resolved, and I’ll be working hard to accomplish this.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.