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Local news is anything but for some rural tv viewers

LINCOLN (AP) — When Dianne Johnson channel-surfs for news in her rural western Nebraska home, all she sees are stories about Colorado crime and car crashes from a Denver television station more than 200 miles away.

It's frustrating for the 61-year-old rancher, who wants to know the latest developments in Nebraska politics and sports. When floods devastated huge swaths of Nebraska this year, Johnson struggled to keep tabs on what was happening.

"If we actually had local news, we would watch it," she said. "But all we get is Colorado drug busts and stories about who got murdered in Denver. It has nothing to do with us."

Johnson is among an estimated 870,000 households nationwide that receive at least one distant network affiliate's feed from their satellite TV service providers because they don't live close enough to get conventional over-the-air signals. With no local TV news stations and a dwindling number of newspapers, many rural Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to track local elections or government decisions that affect their lives.

"It's your connection to what's going on in your community," said Jim Timm, president and executive director of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association.

Johnson's plight is part of a congressional dispute pitting local broadcasters against satellite television providers, who are frequently the only option for viewers in America's most remote corners.

Caught in the middle are the nation's "neglected markets" — remote areas that can't get local broadcast signals, forcing viewers to rely on satellite service that shows them news from other states. Two of the 12 "neglected markets" are in Nebraska, in regions with several of the nation's least-populated counties. The others are in rural corners of Kentucky, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Maine and Michigan.

For many of those areas, two separate issues are at play.

The first is a federal law that lets satellite providers import distant broadcast signals to those "neglected markets" at a steep discount, even though the local news that subscribers see may not be relevant.

In western Nebraska, satellite subscribers might see news from Rapid City, South Dakota, or Denver, which are often geographically closer than Nebraska's largest cities, Omaha and Lincoln. Others who subscribe to AT&T-owned DirecTV end up watching news, weather and commercials from a Los Angeles network affiliate, even though there are local stations much closer to home, in North Platte and Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

"Instead of a tornado hitting the ground in North Platte, they're hearing about sunny beaches in L.A.," said Shannon Booth, a general manager for Gray Television who oversees the company's stations in Lincoln, Hastings and North Platte.

The law was initially passed in 1988 to help small, fledgling satellite TV providers compete with cable companies that were viewed as monopolies at the time. It's set to expire at the year's end, but satellite providers are lobbying Congress to extend it for another five years.

Nebraska broadcasters who want their content beamed to those households say the law is outdated because satellite companies are much larger now and shouldn't receive what amounts to a federal subsidy.

If the law does expire, satellite providers would no longer be able to send distant, out-of-state programming to rural viewers and would likely have to pay more because they'd be required to negotiate with local broadcast stations. Broadcasters could then expand into areas they don't currently reach.

Satellite TV providers argue that that law protects consumers by requiring broadcasters to negotiate in good faith over the fees that satellite companies are required to pay them for access to their shows. Even with the law in place, those fees have risen from $215 million in 2006 to $11.9 billion this year, according to the American Television Alliance, a satellite and cable TV industry group. The expense is often passed along to subscribers.

In a statement, AT&T said broadcasters "routinely hold consumers hostage" with television blackouts if satellite providers don't agree to pay the rising fees. A company spokesman pointed to a Federal Communications Commission ruling last month that ordered a group of broadcast stations to go back to the bargaining table with AT&T, concluding that the stations hadn't negotiated in good faith.

Cable and satellite providers are under financial pressure because customers have been dropping them for cheaper streaming services. Local broadcasters are still generally profitable, but they also face declining viewership and stagnant advertising.

"Nothing prevents local broadcasters from investing in their local communities, extending the reach of their signals and providing these customers free, over-theair signals," Rob Thun, an AT&T executive, said in testimony last month to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Booth, though, said doing so would be practically impossible because it would require federal approval, and for nearly a decade, the FCC has prohibited stations from expanding their transmission facilities or constructing new TV translators that would widen their reach.

The second challenge for rural viewers is a federal law that sets the boundaries for the nation's media markets. In Nebraska, 16 rural counties are in the Denver or Rapid City media markets, based on a map drawn by Nielsen Media Research. Despite being in Nebraska, satellite television subscribers in those markets get news only from Colorado or South Dakota-based stations.

Counties can appeal to the FCC for access to Nebraska-based news, but the process is complicated and time-consuming, said Jordan Dux, director of national affairs for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which has followed the issue.

Legislation sponsored by Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Adrian Smith would create an exemption that would give their constituents access to news out of Scottsbluff. But the measure's prospects are unclear.

"There's a level of frustration out there in areas of Nebraska that don't have access to these local channels," Dux said.

Dux said many of his group's members aren't happy that they can't get news coverage of the Nebraska Legislature. Most legislative hearings and debates are livestreamed on the Internet, but Dux said some Farm Bureau members don't have access to highspeed connections.

It's a major hassle for Jeff Metz, a fourth-generation farmer and rancher from Angora, Nebraska, whose nearest neighbor is 4 miles away.

Metz, 53, relies on satellite television coverage, but the closest local stations he can get are from Denver, nearly 175 miles away.

Metz said he'd like to follow Nebraska legislative news, weather, and local cattle and commodity markets, but the out-of-state stations don't offer any coverage. His local newspaper has gotten smaller and more expensive, but Metz said he feels fortunate to have anything at all.

"I don't care if it's snowing in Denver," Metz said. "People like to know what's going on locally."

Reducing flood risk in Papillion Creek system could cost $100 million, study finds

It could cost taxpayers $100 million to reduce the flooding risk to development that has sprung up along the Papillion Creek system.

That’s according to a preliminary study of the Omaha metro area’s flood vulnerabilities. The recently released study is jointly funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.

Northern Douglas County farmers might be pressed to pay a steep price, too, under the plan — a proposed dam on Thomas Creek would inundate their land.

The flood study proposes other significant projects, including a combination of higher levees, new floodwalls and the widening of some creeks. At least one bridge would need to be widened as a result of an expanded creek. Some vulnerable homes would be elevated, and some homes and businesses could have their basements filled in or the exteriors clad in a waterproof barrier (these types of changes to homes and businesses would be done voluntarily).

The Omaha metro area is at high risk of flood damage, given the extensive development in its flood plain. The Papillion Creek watershed covers most of Douglas County, including Omaha, and parts of Washington and Sarpy Counties.

The corps estimates that there’s $1.9 billion worth of property in the 500-year flood plain. In addition to homes, the flood plain includes extensive commercial development, office space and industry.

But the study does not propose to protect that much property. As with any levee or dam, none of these projects would fully prevent flooding, the study notes.

Flooding will become more likely with climate change, according to the study.

Preliminary analysis indicates the projects would have a benefit-cost ratio of 2:1 over 50 years, said Tiffany Vanosdall, project engineer for the corps. That means $2 of benefit — coming from lowered flood risk and improved recreational amenities — for every dollar spent.

To qualify, projects had to have at least a 1:1 flood benefit to cost ratio, after which additional benefits such as recreation could be factored in.

The proposed Thomas Creek dam, also known as Dam Site 10, would create a reservoir similar in size to Standing Bear Lake, according to the study. Located near the intersection of Nebraska Highways 36 and 133 in northern Douglas County, it could cost about $26 million and generate about $45 million in benefits, the study says.

Affected farm families have been battling to block the dam since the 1970s and succeeded in stopping it in court decades ago. The intervening years haven’t lessened their opposition, they say.

“They will have a fight on their hands,” said Shawn Melotz, whose family farms the area. “There are very few people … that are willing to sell.”

For years, area farmers have voluntarily invested in controlling runoff from their property, she said. Her family has built 16 miles of terraces and undertaken other projects to lessen downstream effects of their operations. In contrast, she said, development in the urban flood plain is elevating risks to others and raising costs for taxpayers.

“Why are taxpayers and landowners paying the price for poor design of development?” she said.

Since the 1970s, the corps and the NRD have been the two dam-building entities in the Omaha metro area. For the study’s proposed projects to come to fruition, the NRD, and perhaps other local governments, would have to agree to be a partner.

John Winkler, general manager for the NRD, said the district has yet to analyze the study results from the corps, so it’s too early to know what path the board will follow. In terms of any project in this plan, the NRD has the right of eminent domain, but Winkler said the district views it as a tool of last resort.

For Winkler, the study results were disappointing. There are several other dams the NRD would like to build in the greater Omaha area, and landowners on some of those proposed dam sites want to sell their land, he said.

The irony is that the one dam that did meet the corps’ standards is opposed by landowners.

A second, less contentious dam in Sarpy County also is under consideration because it almost met the cost-benefit analysis set by the corps in the study.

The NRD may yet choose to tackle some of the other dams, Winkler said.

A public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, followed by more detailed analysis to be completed by March 2021. After that, the plan would have to be approved by the corps’ national leadership and Congress.

It might be 2025 before construction starts, Vanosdall said.

With land values and construction costs rising, the NRD may not be able to wait that long, Winkler said.

“This is a long process,” Winkler said. “It may be, at end of day, we have to move faster than the corps can possibly go with us.”

Based on federal cost share guidelines, 65% of the cost would be borne by the corps and 35% by a local match, Winkler said. The local match could be borne by the NRD or be divvied up among the NRD and various other governmental entities.

Hot coffees in hand, Omaha's Black Friday shoppers undeterred by cold temps, light rain

They went in clutching circular ads, blankets and cups of hot coffee and emerged carrying ceiling fans, cozy holiday sweaters and 65-inch TVs.

Black Friday shoppers in the metro area were undeterred by temperatures in the mid-30s and a light-but-persistent drizzle that fell all day. The promise of hot deals on clothes, electronics and toys was enough to lure some out of the house for one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Others shopped online from the warmth and comfort of their couches.

An estimated 165 million people likely will shop over the long holiday weekend from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics.

Sara and Jeremy Mooney got started about 4:30 a.m. — and they didn’t think that was all that early.

“We never have a plan,” Sara Mooney said. “We go after all the crazy people have left.”

“We’d probably keep driving if there was a line,” Jeremy Mooney said.

The two were leaving the Justice store at Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion. They have one child and several nieces and nephews to shop for.

The Mooneys like to shop at a mix of big-box retailers and local businesses. So they stopped at Old Navy, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s, and planned trips to Spielbound Board Game Cafe in Omaha, which had a game sale, and Fat Brain Toys.

With Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 28 this year, the official holiday shopping season — the consumer countdown to Christmas — is six days shorter than in 2018.

Adobe Analytics predicts a loss of $1 billion in online revenue from a shortened season. Still, it expects online sales will reach $143.7 billion, up 14.1% from last year’s holiday season.

Adobe said that as of 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving, online sales for the day reached $2.1 billion, representing a 20.2% increase from a year ago. Top selling products included MGA Entertainment’s LOL Surprise toys and toys tied to the sequel to Disney’s “Frozen.” Among the most popular electronics items were the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast and air fryers.

“This has been a really good start,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman and leader of U.S. retail and distribution practice at Deloitte LLP. “Black Friday isn’t as important as it was in the past, but it is still the biggest shopping day. It is the most critical barometer of spending.”

* * *

Pamplona has the running of the bulls, and Omaha has the run on the Mart.

“Walk, walk, walk!” security guards at Nebraska Furniture Mart reminded customers as they poured in when the doors of the megastore opened at 8 a.m.

Shoppers made a beeline for Elsa dolls from “Frozen,” steam cleaners and discounted TVs.

Lisa Pihlgren, her three daughters and Celeste Garvis arrived at the Mart at 2 a.m. and were at the front of one of several lines that snaked around buildings.

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Pihlgren said people in other lines had arrived hours before her and camped out overnight.

Garvis had one goal: to get a new refrigerator. There were only 10 LG fridges up for grabs at the special doorbuster price of $799.

“It has French doors,” she said. “No ice, but that’s OK, I don’t have to have that.”

* * *

Janice and Gregory Lloyd were counting their lucky stars.

The two arrived at the Mart a little after 7 a.m., but still managed to grab two infrared heaters on sale for $9.99 — a discount of $70.

“Isn’t that good?” Janice Lloyd said.

She had her eye on an Instant Pot deal, but a woman in front of her grabbed the last box.

The giddy duo were headed next for coffee and breakfast.

Kimberly Bash — err, Santa — is going to make two little girls very happy this year.

Bash grabbed one of a limited number of Barbie Dream Houses at the Mart. “It’s the only thing my 7-year-old wanted from Santa,” she said.

This was her third year in a row participating in Black Friday shopping.

“You can get some good deals,” she said.

Now just one task lies ahead: assembling the Barbie house.

“So that will be interesting,” Bash said.

* * *

Shoppers from near and far converged on the Village Pointe shopping center in west Omaha.

Nina Lanuza and her three boys drove from Schuyler, Nebraska, to scoop up AirPods Pros from the always-bustling Apple store — even though they weren’t actually on sale.

“It was good, actually,” Lazuna said of the crowds. “A lot less people than I was expecting.”

The family was headed to the Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna next — the boys like brands Nike and Adidas.

Lazuna wanted to get back on the road after that , worried about icy roads on their 1.5-hour drive back to Schuyler.

* * *

Craig Christians drove his two teenage girls — Alexis, 18, and Ashley, 16, — from their home in Logan, Iowa, to stores 45 minutes away.

At Village Pointe, the girls grabbed jeans, perfume and other clothes from American Eagle Outfitters and Victoria’s Secret.

Dad had his eye on a new TV from Best Buy.

“We’ve got to get the TVs while they’re cheap — or cheaper,” he said.

The girls had already voted on where to go for lunch: Taco Bell.

* * *

Elkhorn resident Jake Alexander waited in line at the Cabela’s in La Vista for two hours and managed to snag two HELIX GPS fish finders.

He was finished shopping 15 minutes after the store opened at 5 a.m.

“I got my deal,” he said.

The fish finders were $999, marked down from $1,700, he said.

The two-hour wait in 30-degree temperatures wasn’t too bad, he said. Cabela’s staff handed out coffee and doughnuts, and the crowd wrapped around the building made it inside within three minutes once the doors opened.

“Piece of cake,” an employee said.

Amber and Billy Bailey also grabbed a fish finder — a combination Christmas/birthday gift for Billy — and some $10 fleeces.

Their next stop?

“Home,” Billy Bailey said.

“Bed,” his wife laughed.

* * *

By 5:05 a.m., Ron Vollmer had picked up his annual supply of jeans.

The Papillion resident made quick work of his shopping list at Cabela’s, and was the first one through the checkout line.

He was considering stopping at Office Depot next to stock up on paper, but didn’t think they’d be open quite so early.

* * *

At the Shadow Lake shopping center, Dick’s Sporting Goods, J.C. Penney and Bed Bath and Beyond were starting to get decent foot traffic by 6:30 a.m.

One woman outside the Ulta said she was shopping just to pass some time while visiting relatives for Thanksgiving.

Ross Mills of Bellevue isn’t usually a big Black Friday shopper, but he knew his son needed a new blanket, so he stopped in at Bed Bath and Beyond.

There, he found a weighted blanket for $35 — down from $100 — and a programmable slow cooker.

“This is very rare for me,” he said. “I’m usually one to avoid these places.”

* * *

Judy Stigge and granddaughter Madison Stigge started the big shopping day with a 5 a.m. Starbucks run.

Fueled by caffeine, the two hit up Dick’s Sporting Goods, picked up a bedding set at Bed Bath and Beyond and were headed to J.C. Penney so Judy Stigge could buy pajamas for her grandkids.

They were looking forward to one stop in particular: breakfast, probably at Hy-Vee.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Black Friday shopping in the Omaha metro area

Photos: Black Friday shopping in the Omaha metro area