Interview: The David to Comcast’s Goliath

RFD-TV's Patrick Gottsch has a bone to pick with the city slickers in Philadelphia.

Is Patrick Gottsch the David to Comcast’s Goliath?

He’s certainly making the attempt. Gottsch is the founder of RFD-TV, an Omaha-based television network that features shows like American Farmer, Classic Tractor Fever, and Corn College TV in the lineup. And ever since Comcast dropped the channel from its cable lineup in Colorado and New Mexico last year, Gottsch has been a thorn in Comcast’s side.

That’s been particularly true during Comcast’s attempt to merge with Time Warner Cable. Gottsch rallied his viewers to flood the Federal Communications Commission with thousands of short missives pleading that RFD be restored to the Comcast lineup.

The problem? Gottsch believes Comcast dropped his network because Comcast execs in Philadelphia don’t care about their rural customers. He points to a May congressional hearing where Comcast vice president David Cohen responded to questions about RFD by stating, “We are primarily an urban-clustered cable company.”

“It’s proven to be just as popular in the cities,” Gottsch said of his channel. “It’s been watched. There’s a lot of folks in the cities of America that owned a farm or a ranch and wound up moving to town and wanted that connection back to their roots.”

Cohen disputes Gottsch’s criticisms. In a letter to Gottsch last week (below) Cohen said Comcast carries plenty of rural programming in many markets — but that RFD was yanked from Colorado and New Mexico in favor of better-performing options. “Your efforts to drive a wedge between Comcast and rural viewers as a means to promote your own business is unfair and grossly inaccurate,” Cohen wrote.

Gottsch talked recently to Philly Mag about his network and his campaign.

First of all tell me about the RFD-TV network, what’s it all about?

Originally when I started putting this together in the ’90s I of course wanted to start an agriculture network. It took eight years to get this financed. During that time I came across other people that wanted to start a horse channel. I had another person that wanted to start a rural lifestyle channel. I met up with  Willie Nelson in 1993 and he had $4,000 of programming, classic country music from the old Porter Wagoner show, Pop! Goes The Country, things like that. We were all trying to do the same thing, get financing, get launched on a cable or satellite to have a channel. We just kept going, why are we all doing this? Let’s combine everything — a little music, a little lifestyle, and see how it works. The good news is everything worked.

It sounds like you’ve got a fairly devoted following based on the things that I’ve seen at the FCC.

Yeah we’ve been doing that for a long time. We go to state fairs. People just walk up and thank us for providing this kind of programming and we know what they need. I’ve read every email that’s ever come in to RFD-TV since day one and I really did stop counting at 500,000. But it all boils down to two things: 1. It’s about time somebody paid attention to rural America, and 2. thank you for family-oriented programming because people can put it on their TV set and not worry about their kids or grandkids walking into the room. So, that’s us.

How did you guys get crosswise with Comcast? What happened there?

Well, it was a complete shock to me. We worked hard like all independent channels do to get carried and in 2010 we were launched in Colorado and New Mexico. Spent a lot of money, our money, promoting it and trying to prove ourselves to get more launches. Everything went great we had very respectable ratings — we thought everything was fine in Colorado and New Mexico. Then without warning, without any discussion, without any notice whatsoever with us, Comcast decided to remove RFD-TV from all the cable systems in Colorado and New Mexico both in the city and in the country. And it came as a complete shock to us.

It wasn’t until May 8th of this year at the Congressional committee where I was asked to testify and Mr. Cohen was awful on that panel. He was asked a question by the chairman of the subcommittee on why they dropped RFD-TV from Colorado and New Mexico. And his answer was stunning, to us and to the committee. Cohen’s response was that they’re a “primarily urban clustered cable company.” Which we thought was very insensitive because Comcast serves a lot of rural areas, too. There just seemed to be this bias — coming out of Philadelphia — against the rural programmer. It had nothing to do with our ratings, it had nothing to do with our price, it had nothing to do with customers around us.

And so you’ve asked your viewers to file testimony with the Federal Communications Commission about the Comcast merger with Time Warner. From what I can tell the majority of the comments that the FCC is receiving are coming from RFD viewers. A lot of people are concerned about anti-trust issues or monopolies or technological issues or Internet neutrality, but the majority seem to be people who are RFD viewers and really cranky and really worried that they’re not going to get to keep watching their rural television.

The executives of all four companies, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T [which is merging with DirectTV] probably prepared themselves to answer questions about consolidation and competition and everything else. And it’s this rural issue that has become the No. 1 issue in both mergers.

So what do you hope comes out of this? Do you hope that Comcast starts carrying you again in those areas or are you hoping to derail the merger? Are you wanting to be a giant killer or are you just hoping to get some leverage to negotiate your way back in onto the cable system?

Let me be real clear, we have never been against the mergers and we are not against the mergers — that’s not our position at all.

We would hope that Comcast would read these comments and see that there’s a lot of passion out there for rural programming. We hope they’d reconsider their position on carrying RFD-TV and add it to their system just like they added BBC World News and so on. If that doesn’t happen then of course we’re going to continue to push for conditions to be put on the merger that would close the loophole from the 2010 merger like NBC Universal. In that merger Comcast was required to add 10 new independent channels over the next 10 years, and to their credit they have. They’ve launched four over these past four years. But I don’t think it was the intent of the Department of Justice or the FCC for Comcast to be launching new independent channels at the expense of older more established channels like our own.

By the comments we’ve written to the FCC I believe it’s not a stretch to see that rural America really considers themselves an underserved audience at this time. Possibly there should be a condition for that in the merger that will address it. I think that with how strong Comcast has been fighting for the last month and trying to defend their position, I think a condition is going to be the only solution.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.