AT&T Files 'Bad Faith' Retrans Complaint Against Nine Broadcasters

On behalf of DirecTV, DirecTV Now or U-Verse, AT&T has filed a complaint against nine TV station owners who it says have collectively "pulled" 20 stations from those services on May 30 and June 10, blackouts it says continued at press time "with no end in sight." AT&T said all the stations have shared services agreements with Sinclair, which it says appears to "manage and control" the stations, but it did not target that broadcaster in the complaint. 

Related: Blackouts Are Sign of Troubled Times 

The takeaways from the complaint are that the nine stations have ignored individual proposals and refused to negotiate "for several months." The station groups cited are Deerfield Media, GoCom Media of Illinois, Howard Stirk Holdings, Mercury Broadcast Group, MPS Media, Nashville License Holdings, Roberts Media, Second Generation of Iowa and Waitt Broadcasting. 

“We want to get these local stations back into our customers’ channel lineups as soon as possible,” DirecTV parent AT&T said in a statement earlier this month. “But by law, each of their owners, who are represented collectively, has exclusive control over their carriage rights.” 

The "refusal to negotiate" is the operative phrase. Broadcasters are under no government obligation to strike deals for their signals and can require they be taken off an MVPD after their existing contract expires if there has been no settlement or agreement on an extension. But they are required by the FCC, and Congress in the STELAR Act, to negotiate in good faith. If they don't, the FCC is empowered to step in. 

Congress is currently beginning the process of renewing the STELAR Act, including whether to add language, pushed by MVPDs, that would make blackouts de facto bad faith. AT&T is also said to be trying to send a signal to other stations that it is serious about reining in rising retrans costs.  

AT&T tells the FCC the "ostensibly independent" stations "appear to be managed and controlled by Sinclair..." and that they refused to respond after their contracts with AT&T expired and they went dark. AT&T says that violates both the letter and the spirit of the FCC's good-faith rules, calling it just the kind of gamesmanship the rules were meant to prevent.  

AT&T claims the impasses are not over substantive issues but instead a part of a strategic delay, with consumers bearing the brunt. 

Broadcasters continue to point out, as they did to legislators in recent video marketplace hearings, that their signals continue to be available free to MVPD customers over the air. 

AT&T wants the FCC to find that each station has not negotiated in good faith, force it to the table to do so, require forfeitures and anything else the FCC deems appropriate.  

The stations at issue and off its platforms at press time, according to AT&T, were KBTV Beaumont, Tex. (Fox); WSTR Cincinnati (My Net); WPMI Mobile, Ala. (NBC); WJTC Mobile (independent); WHAM Rochester, N.Y. (ABC); WHAM-DT Rochester (CW); KMYS San Antonio (CW); WBUI Champaign, Ill. (CW); WCCU Champaign (Fox); WRSP Champaign (Fox); WWMB Myrtle Beach, S.C. (CW); WEYI Flint, Mich. (NBC); KMTW Wichita (My Net); WFLI Chattanooga (CW); WNBW Gainesville, Fla. (NBC); WTLF Tallahassee (CW); WSWB Wilkes Barre/Scranton (CW); WNAB Nashville (CW); KMTR Eugene, Ore. (NBC); KFXA Cedar Rapids (Fox); and KMEG Sioux City (CBS). 

According to several of the stations, their retrans deals expired March 31, but continued to be available to AT&T's customers via extensions. Howard Stirk Holdings and Roberts Media said they offered DirecTV an unconditional extension early this month, but were rejected. 

Mike Farrell contributed to this story

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.