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Verizon takes heat for axing rural cable channel RFD-TV

MTV was so '80s. What Verizon FiOS TV subscribers want today are crop reports, Mollie B Polka Party, and Hee Haw reruns.

Patrick Gottsch runs the rural RFD-TV channel, dropped by Verizon FiOS TV.
Patrick Gottsch runs the rural RFD-TV channel, dropped by Verizon FiOS TV.Read moreBloomberg

MTV was so '80s.

What Verizon FiOS TV subscribers want today are crop reports, Mollie B Polka Party, and Hee Haw reruns.

More than 50,000 fans have complained to Verizon Communications Inc. over its decision to ax the rural-content channel from FiOS TV as a cost-cutting measure, the Nebraska-based RFD-TV said Tuesday.

The RFD-TV viewer outpouring - emailed to RFD-TV CEO Patrick Gottsch and forwarded hourly to Verizon executives - is a reaction to a broad trend playing out in the pay-TV industry: Niche-audience and low-rated channels face banishment as Verizon, Comcast Corp., and other TV distributors slim TV packages to contain monthly bills and compete with cheaper on-demand streamers.

TV distributors believe that consumers can no longer afford hundreds of cable channels, and decisions will have to be made on which cable channels should stay and which should go.

Verizon spokesman Raymond McConville confirmed on Monday that FiOS will drop RFD-TV on Jan. 31. The channel is carried on the Custom TV, Preferred, and Ultimate tiers. It will not be carried on any FiOS tier.

"Content costs have increased significantly in recent years, and in order to prevent all of those costs from being reflected on customers' bills, it is sometimes necessary to remove channels from our lineup," McConville said.

Verizon, which has 5.8 million TV subscribers, has been one of the most aggressive channel pruners, launching the slimmed-down Custom TV package in 2015. Custom TV does not offer ESPN as a core channel.

ESPN, the most expensive channel in the TV bundle, costs $6 to $7 a month, and the sports giant has sued Verizon in New York courts over its removal.

But RFD-TV's Gottsch said that his rural-based channel differs from ESPN because it is one of the cheapest offered by TV distributors: 10 cents a month, based on industry estimates.

"There is no cost savings, and we're a channel that never raised its rates," Gottsch said.

Verizon's McConville said negotiations between Verizon and RFD-TV were private.

Gottsch also complained that FiOS TV has been "purging everything that's rural" content, with RFD-TV and the cancellations in late 2015 of the Outdoor and Sportsman channels.

RFD-TV televises diverse programming with agricultural news and wholesome entertainment such as the Mollie B Polka Party, which averages 300,000 homes per Saturday night. Gottsch said. The channel markets itself as "Rural America's Most Important Network," and its No. 1 program is Hee Haw, a humor and variety show that debuted in 1969.

McConville said that Verizon still offered "plenty of channels on FiOS TV with rural and outdoors content" - including Great American Country, TVG2, World Fishing Network and National Geographic.

As TV executives go, Gottsch breaks the mold. He fancies cowboy boots, leather vests, and longish hair - markings that speak to his growing up on a farm in Elkhorn, Neb. He is also not afraid to stir the pot in Washington over cable mergers or tap into RFD-TV fan passion.

About 93,000 comments were filed in support of RFD-TV with the Federal Communications Commission during the regulatory reviews of the proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable and the AT&T/DirecTV mergers, Gottsch said. The Justice Department and the FCC opposed the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal as anticompetitive and Comcast abandoned it in 2015. Regulators approved AT&T/DirecTV.

Gottsch has tapped those passions again, scrolling news of Verizon's decision across the bottom of the RFD-TV screen.

A sampling of comments from Jan. 4 to Jan. 9 included FiOS TV subscribers from South Jersey and the Pennsylvania suburbs. A woman from Lodi, N.J., in support of RFD-TV wrote in all caps: "In fact, I am watching and enjoying Mollie B Polka Party . . . right now . . .

"I do not want to watch programs/shows about Satan, murder, abortion, drugs, rape, the occult and witchcraft . . . Like ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, Fox . . . and too many channels to list here."