Cable Retrans Blackouts Declined Sharply in 2021, But 2022 Could See an Uptick in Disputes

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(Image credit: wikimedia commons)

The New Year rang in with a bit of a whimper on the retransmission consent front, with the American Television Alliance estimating that blackouts in 2021 — those periods when stations go dark as deals expire — were about one-third their number in the previous year. But distributors won’t have much time to celebrate, as the traditional deal cycle suggests that 2022 could be another record year for broadcast service disruptions.  

According to the ATVA, a trade group that represents satellite and cable companies, there were about 105 blackouts in 2021, less than one-third the record 336 stations that pulled their signal in the prior year and less than half the 278 stations that were blacked out in 2019. 

The lack of heated disputes as the clock neared 12 on Dec. 31 was in line with what Kagan, a research arm of S&P Global Market Intelligence, had predicted nearly 11 months prior. Back in February, the researcher had estimated that retrans blackouts would be lessened simply because there were fewer deals set to expire. According to Kagan, about 22 retrans deals affecting 30.2 million subscribers were expected to expire in 2021. That compares to 2020, when retrans blackouts affected about 56 million homes. 

Kagan based its predictions on the usual three-year timeline from the last public retrans transaction announcement or from earnings calls and investor presentations. Typically, broadcasters and distributors don’t reveal when a deal is up until it is, citing non-disclosure agreements embedded in retrans contracts. 

With that in mind, 2022 could see a big resurgence in retrans battles, as more deals are expected to enter the expiration queue. 

AT&T, which spun off a minority stake in its DirecTV, AT&T TV and U-verse TV units to TPG in February, struck several big retrans agreements in 2019 that could come up for renewal this year. Included in that mix are Nexstar Media Group, Sinclair Broadcast Group, CBS, Hearst TV and others that involved more than 300 stations alone. While it is no guarantee that all of those stations will go dark for some period this year, it’s a good guess that many will.

Other distributors who reached large retrans deals in 2019 include Comcast (with Nexstar and Tegna), Charter Communications (Nexstar and Tegna), Verizon Communications (Tegna, Nexstar and Cox Media), Suddenlink Communications (Tegna) and Frontier Communications (Nexstar). Dish Network reached a retrans deal with Meredith (now part of Gray Television) and Cox Media Group in July 2019. It is unclear as to whether the Meredith stations will fall under Gray TV’s retrans schedule.    

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While there were fewer actual blackouts in 2021, several disputes that began earlier continued into the New Year. The largest is Tegna’s dispute with Dish Network, involving stations in about 53 markets that went dark on Oct. 6. Both sides have accused the other of negotiating in bad faith, and there was no indication at press time that a resolution was near. 

Verizon Fios TV customers lost access to Tegna stations in about five markets on Jan. 4, after the parties couldn’t renew their retrans agreement, which was originally scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2021. 

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Many of the bigger retrans disputes in 2021 took place at the beginning of the year and were resolved in the subsequent weeks and months. Dish Network reached a long-term carriage deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group’s 144 stations in November, but the broadcaster failed to reach an agreement for its regional sports networks. The Sinclair stations never went dark to Dish customers during those negotiations — the original deal was set to expire in August — because of a series of short-term extensions offered by the broadcaster. 

Almost exactly one year ago, Cox Media Group resolved a 20-day retrans blackout of its stations to Suddenlink subscribers, and in February last year Cox Media settled a five-day blackout with AT&T, getting its stations back in front of DirecTV, U-verse TV and AT&T TV customers mere hours before the start of the Super Bowl.

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On the streaming side, YouTubeTV avoided a prolonged blackout of Disney channels by hammering out a deal with the entertainment giant that brought back broadcaster ABC‘s owned stations and cable channels ESPN, FX, Disney Channel, National Geographic and Freeform after a 36-hour hiatus. YouTube had promised its subscribers a $15 one-time credit to their monthly bill if a Disney blackout occurred, a pledge the company said it would still honor.   

The Google-owned streaming service also reached a carriage deal with NBCUniversal in October, avoiding a blackout. 

In the meantime, YouTubeTV and Hulu Live+ TV are still locked in a carriage battle with Sinclair’s Bally Sports Network RSNs, which went dark to those streamers in October 2020. 

Regional sports channel MSG Network hammered out a deal with Verizon’s Fios service on October 6, while its ongoing fight with Comcast, which began earlier in the month, raged on. At press time, MSG was still off Comcast systems.   

Dish dropped RSNs Root Sports Network and AT&T Sports Network in September.  Three months later it dropped its final RSN -- New England Sports Network -- making Dish the only major MVPD without a regional sports network

In July, Dish and HBO ended their three-year carriage battle, while earlier that month ViacomCBS struck a carriage deal for its linear and streaming networks with Charter Communications. In June, Charter struck a separate carriage deal with Multicultural News Network while Verizon signed on Black News Channel that same month. 

In January 2021, CMG struck a retrans deal with Suddenlink, while Fios averted a blackout of Hearst TV channels by hammering out a deal at the beginning of last year. 

So it isn't all doom and gloom when distributors and broadcasters make their ways to the negotiating table, and it seems the likelihood of a deal getting done without a  disruption in service is increasing. At the same time, the threat of a blackout is sometimes a broadcaster's only negotiating leverage, and most aren't afraid to use it.   

Broadcasters and distributors have been playing the blackout game for years. And though the decline in pay TV subscribership and the increase of direct-to-consumer offerings that include broadcast fare could eventually eliminate the need for these disputes — or maybe someone will invent an antenna-like device that will allow consumers to capture broadcast signals over the air for free — chances are that’s going to take a few years to fully play out. Until then, consumers, distributors and programmers will just have to deal with their retrans agita. ■

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.