Retrans Disputes Continue in New Year

The retransmission rhetoric machine was relatively quiet moving into the New Year, although disputes involving satellite giant DirecTV and over-builder WideOpenWest spiced up what would have been an unusually tepid holiday.

The end of the year is a favorite target for broadcasters to time the expiration of their retrans deals. But the cycle appears to have skipped at least a year as only a handful of deals expired without a renewal. And the ones that did mainly involved smaller operators or stations in less populated markets.

WideOpenWest customers in the Atlanta area lost access to CBS station WGCL-TV and its sister network Peachtree TV on Jan. 1 after the companies could not come to terms. The stations are owned by Meredith Corp., which has about 17 stations and recently agreed to purchase Time Inc. for about $2.8 billion.

In a statement Meredith said the station had tried for months to reach an agreement to no avail. WideOpenWest entered the Atlanta market in 2016 after it purchased NuLink Communications, a small operator in the area that offers service to about 34,000 homes in neighboring Newnan, Ga.

In a statement, WOW said the company was unable to reach a retrans agreement because of what it called Meredith’s “insistent demands for new rates” that are far above what the company has agreed to in nearly two dozen other deals.

“NuLink is committed to reaching a fair agreement with Meredith that is in NuLink customers’ best interest, and hopes to restore the programming to customers in Newnan, Ga. as soon as possible,” WOW said in the statement. In the meantime, the operator suggested its customers access the programming via antennas or digital services like CBS All Access.

For DirecTV customers in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, Jan. 1 at midnight was the last time they could watch NBC affiliate KNBN-TV (although they could still access the channel via the free public airwaves or through its online app). Unless a deal is reached soon, DirecTV customers in that area could lose access to NFL Playoff games (which kick off on NBC Jan. 6 with the NFC Wild Card Game) and Super Bowl LII (Feb. 4), as well as the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which start on Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea.

DirecTV has been weathering a handful of disputes that began earlier in 2017 but failed to be resolved by year-end. About seven stations owned by Charlotte, N.C.-based American Spirit Media went dark to DirecTV customers on Sept. 21, including KAUZ-TV (CBS) in Wichita Falls, Texas; WDBD (Fox) in Jackson, Miss.; KVHP (Fox) in Lake Charles, La.; WSFX (Fox) in Wilmington, N.C.; WUPW (Fox) in Toledo, Ohio; WXTX (Fox) in Columbus, Ga.; and WUPV (The CW) in Richmond, Va.

In statements on its station websites, American Spirit Media claims that the blackout was the last thing it wanted, adding that it offered extensions to DirecTV with the intention of getting a deal done to lessen the impact on viewers.

“Our parent company wants to get a deal done, but we’re a group of just 7 local television stations up against a huge multi media conglomerate,” American Spirit said on its KAUZ-TV website. "And DirecTV seems unwilling to negotiate fairly with smaller station groups like ours.”

The station group pointed to an earlier retrans negotiation where DirecTV kept tiny two-station Dispatch Broadcast Group (WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio and WTHR-TV in Indianapolis) off their lineup for more than five weeks.

“We do not feel it is right for us to give away our programming to a company that then packages it with other services and equipment and resells it to make large profits,” American Spirit said in a statement.

DirecTV’s dispute with independent KFVE-TV in Honolulu, Hawaii also continued into the New Year. The station went dark in October.

“We are working to make sure DirecTV customers continue to have access to KFVE without interruption and will continue to keep you informed,” the station said on its website, reminding viewers that it is also free over the air and available through other local providers.

While broadcasters continue to stress they are merely asking for fair compensation for their content, cable, satellite and telco TV operators have complained for years over the high cost of providing access to stations that use the public airwaves for free. In a statement earlier this week, the American Cable Association, which represents about 750 small and medium sized cable operators, said high retrans costs are one of the biggest factors in rising pay TV bills.

“Our members are small and mid-sized cable companies whose primary goal in these negotiations is to keep prices down and programs on the air for their customers,” ACA president Matt Polka said in a statement. “But this latest round of negotiations demonstrates once again that large corporate media conglomerates (particularly Hearst, Meredith, Tegna, and Sinclair) - who are remotely headquartered and have little concern for the local communities our members serve - can and will force small cable operators to accept high double- and triple-digit percent increases to continue carrying their signals.

"With ACA members unable to fully absorb these cost increases and stay in business, the real victims of the broadcasters' greed are consumers who will see cable subscription rates rise in 2018,” Polka continued. “Don't blame cable; blame the broadcasters."