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Aiming to defeat Democrat Russ Feingold and win re-election on Nov. 8, 2016, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is turning to Green Bay Packers fans for support, confident that they aren’t fans of the rival Minnesota Vikings.
A Johnson radio ad released Oct. 25, 2016 starts with a strong claim, as the male narrator says:
"There’s nothing like watching the Packers win on Sunday. But for some in Wisconsin, that’s not possible. They’re forced to watch Viking games."
Not possible to watch Packers games?
"Ron Johnson believes all Wisconsinites deserve to enjoy Packer games, and their local news," the narrator continues. "That’s why, when he went to Washington, he got a law passed to fix it. And he did it in his first term. One broadcast station already plans to use this law to provide Packer games to Iron and Ashland counties. And other broadcasters across northern Wisconsin will have the opportunity to offer coverage."
Rescuing thousands of Wisconsinites fans from having to watch Vikings games sounds like the politician’s equivalent of returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
So, why haven’t we heard the crowds cheering?
The problem isn’t as pervasive as the ad states.
And, so far, the law only offers the possibility of fixing the problem.
‘Not possible’ in ‘orphan counties’
There is a phenomenon in broadcasting called "orphan counties." It occurs when a county in one state is assigned to a local television market in a neighboring state. In 13 northern Wisconsin counties, including Ashland and Iron, according to a broadcast industry blog, the local channels, including the local news, are from stations in either the Minneapolis-St. Paul or Duluth TV markets.
That means that if the Packers and Vikings play at the same time on the same network, but not against each other, viewers in the orphan counties are shown the Vikings game, not the Packers game.
That occurred six times in the 2015 season and is expected to occur twice in the 2016 season (NFL game times are subject to change), according to the Ashland Daily Press.
On those days, viewers in orphan counties can see the Packers games only if they subscribe to a satellite service and pay an additional fee for NFL package.
So, Johnson overstates the problem when he says it’s not possible for some Wisconsin residents to watch Packers games. That happens, at most, several times per season. But it’s true that on those days, Wisconsinites in "orphan counties" are shown Vikings games rather than Packers games.
Now to the fix Johnson talks about.
The law to ‘fix it’
In 2014, when Congress reauthorized a satellite television law, a provision was included to address the orphan counties problem. But it requires a petition to be filed and the Federal Communications Commission to approve it.
So, when Johnson says he "got a law passed," it’s not as though the law itself fixes the problem.
Johnson takes credit for the petition provision. And while it’s clear he supports the provision, doing so in a December 2015 letter to the FCC, his campaign could not cite evidence that he was responsible for the provision.
So, that part of the claim is unclear. But to be fair to Johnson, there isn’t necessarily a formal record on how provisions get inserted into a law.
But when the ad says one station "plans to use this law to provide Packer games to Iron and Ashland counties," that’s misleading in that WSAW’s petition must get FCC approval.
The petition seeks to have satellite providers -- there are two in the United States -- DirecTV and DISH Network -- carry its signal to some orphan county viewers, those in Ashland and Iron counties. That would allow satellite TV subscribers in those areas to see Packers games that aren’t shown there now, without any additional fees.
"In a state where the Packers are publicly owned and religiously followed, orphan county viewers feel an affront akin to forcing Washington (Redskins) football fans to watch nothing but Dallas Cowboys," WSAW wrote to the FCC, which is based in Washington, D.C.
But the petition applies to only two of the orphan counties. Moreover, DirecTV told Johnson in October 2016 it was technically possible to carry WSAW’s signal to only to four of 11 ZIP codes in Iron County.
In short, there are many unknowns.
The FCC told us it has until Feb. 6, 2017 to decide on WSAW’s petition. WDIO-TV in Duluth is objecting to it. The FCC must determine whether granting the petition is in a county’s interest and whether it would be economically and technically feasible for satellite providers to carry the WSAW signal. And if it approves the petition, the FCC might order only order one satellite carry to pick up WSAW’s signal, not necessarily both.
Indeed, one of Johnson’s Senate staff members has essentially said that no fix has been achieved yet.
"Everything in government is slow, but we do think we are very close to a real solution that will give Wisconsinites real change," aide Brooke Ericson told the Ashland newspaper in commenting about the WSAW petition. "Just this petition going to the FCC, I think, is a further step in the right direction. It’s more than any other senator or congressman for that matter has been able to achieve."
Johnson says it’s not possible for some Wisconsin residents to watch Packers games, "they’re forced to watch Viking games," so he "got a law passed to fix" the problem.
In some northern parts of the state, viewers in markets served by Minnesota TV stations are not shown some Packers games, whenever they happen to conflict with Vikings broadcasts. But those residents still see the vast majority of Packers games.
As for the "fix," Johnson backs a new provision in federal law that allows for petitions to be filed that, if granted by the Federal Communications Commission, could alleviate the problem in at least some of the so-called orphan counties. But whether that will occur remains to be seen.
For a statement that has an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.
President John F. Kennedy released star Packer Paul Hornung from military reserve duty so he could play in the 1961 NFL Championship Game. True.
Wisconsin’s right to work bill would "likely apply to" Packers players and their union. Mostly True.
The Packers a "socialist organization." Mostly False.
Gov. Scott Walker once compared himself to Packers quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers after being criticized by Donald Trump. We did an In Context article on that.
YouTube, Ron Johnson radio ad, Oct. 25, 2016
Ron Johnson campaign, news release, Oct. 25, 2016
Interview, Ron Johnson campaign spokesman Ben Voelkel, Oct. 28, 2016
Email, Russ Feingold campaign spokesman Michael Tyler, Oct. 28, 2016
Email, Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Janice Wise, Oct. 27, 2016
Federal Communications Commission, Sen. Ron Johnson letter, Dec. 14, 2015
Federal Communications Commission, Sen. Ron Johnson letter, Sept. 27, 2016
Federal Communications Commission, report and order, Sept. 2, 2015
Federal Communications Commission, satellite market modifications petitions memo, accessed Oct. 27, 2016
Ashland Daily Press, "Petitions could open door to Packer broadcasts in Ashland, Iron Counties," Sept. 9, 2016
NorthPine.com, "Upper Midwest Broadcasting" post, Sept, 19, 2016
Interview, NorthPine.com broadcasting industry blogger Jon Ellis, Oct. 26, 2016
Federal Communications Commission, letter to Sen. Ron Johnson, March 1, 2016
WDIO-TV, objection to WSAW-TV petition, Oct. 20, 2016
Ron Johnson U.S. Senate site, DirecTV letter to Johnson, Oct. 3, 2016
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