UPDATE, 7:50 PM: Tribune confirms that its stations and WGN America will vanish from DirecTV at midnight in their local time zones. Tribune “simply cannot get fair compensation from DirecTV and we cannot allow DirecTV to continue taking advantage of us,” the company’s broadcasting president, Nils Larsen, says. Tribune adds that up to now DirecTV hasn’t paid a fee to carry the TV stations and says that it “is asking for an agreement that is similar to those that DirecTV already has in place with hundreds of other broadcasters and program providers.” Larsen notes that DirecTV subscribers can still watch the broadcast stations “for free in HD with a TV antenna or through an alternative pay-TV provider.” DirecTV says that having the stations go dark is “the last thing we want to do but we have no choice.” It asked Tribune to allow the satellite company to “keep the channels up while we try and work this out, it’s the only right thing to do for the customers and we hope Tribune will give us the OK to do that.”
The announcements come as a surprise — particularly after DirecTV prematurely announced this morning that it had a deal with Tribune. Pay TV programmers and distributors frequently play a game of chicken with retransmission consent negotiations, but typically settle before things get out of hand. If the stalemate continues, then we can expect to see lawmakers and the FCC become involved. Regulators are already weighing proposals that might curtail blackouts when there’s a contract impasse. And there’s sure to be an outcry from baseball fans in several major cities as the season begins: Tribune stations broadcast the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, the Philiadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals, and the New York Mets.
PREVIOUS, 1:07 PM: Things seem to be spiraling out of control. Negotiations are continuing by phone and email, I’m told. But DirecTV and Tribune are digging in their heels, and engaging in a battle of dueling press releases in the hope that the other side will bend to public pressure. If there’s no agreement, then at midnight about 6M DirecTV customers could lose local programming from Tribune while 14M might lose pay TV service WGN. One great irony in all this is that Tribune’s CEO is Eddy Hartenstein, who founded DirecTV and ran it until 2004.
The satellite company says it’s “extremely perplexed.” It supposedly had “a handshake deal on Thursday with an agreed upon rate for (Tribune’s) channels.” It adds that Tribune’s “actions are the true definition of ‘bad faith’ in every sense of the term.” But Tribune says “there has been no agreement of any kind, handshake or otherwise, on Thursday or any other day.” Tribune didn’t respond to DirecTV’s taunt that the broadcast and newspaper company’s “ability to negotiate a reasonable retransmission agreement” may be complicated by its bankruptcy process. “Threatening station blackouts to extract an exorbitant fee for all of Tribune’s content may provide an improved return for certain banks and hedge funds, but is not in the interest of its viewers and is not a cure for bankruptcy,” DirecTV says. Tribune says that if its stations go dark then “it will be because DirecTV is unwilling to reach a fair agreement.”
PREVIOUS, 11:47 AM: Did DirecTV speak too soon? Tribune says so. “Tribune Broadcasting has not reached an agreement or come to terms with DirecTV on any aspect of its contract, which expires at midnight tonight,” the company says. “Any statement by DirecTV to the contrary is inaccurate and misleading.” Stay tuned.
PREVIOUS, 9:37 AM: You didn’t really think DirecTV would lose its Tribune stations at midnight tonight, did you? Tribune warned this week that there was a “strong likelihood” that its 23 stations in 16 markets — including lots of Fox and CW affiliates — would go dark on DirecTV when the current contract expires. But, like most retransmission consent renewal disputes, the companies reached an agreement at nearly the 11th hour: DirecTV says today that it accepted financial terms Tribune offered in a phone conversation on Thursday afternoon. The companies didn’t announce the terms. “While we have been negotiating in good faith for two months, we believe Tribune’s viewers and our customers are best served by making sure the local stations remain on our service without disruption first and will then negotiate a separate agreement for WGN America,” DirecTV SVP of Programming Dan Hartman says. Tribune’s importance goes beyond the network shows it carries. Its stations also provide local broadcasts for the New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, and the Philadelphia Phillies.