Meg James, Los Angeles Times
Published 8:06 p.m. PT Jan. 2, 2019
Nearly three dozen Tribune Media television stations, including KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles, went dark Wednesday afternoon on Charter Communications’ Spectrum pay-TV service after the two companies failed to reach agreement on a new distribution deal.
Customers in more than 6 million Charter Spectrum cable TV homes nationwide — including 1.5 million in the Los Angeles region — were swept up in the latest fee dispute between two major TV companies. The two sides have spent nearly two weeks in a tense standoff over Tribune Media’s proposed fee increase for the right to carry the company’s programming as part of the Spectrum pay-TV packages.
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Viewers in Los Angeles could miss KTLA’s popular morning newscasts. Tribune’s KSWB Channel 5 station in San Diego, which carries Fox network programming, also is included in the outage.
The companies’ previous distribution contract expired at 9 p.m. Monday, but the two sides agreed to a short-term extension to bridge the New Year’s holiday and give themselves time to work out a new deal. But that extension expired at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
In recent years, TV station blackouts have become more common as pay-TV distributors, including Charter, struggle to rein in programming costs and negotiations over carriage deals become more contentious.
In this case, Tribune Media has been demanding that Charter pay higher fees for the rights to retransmit the signals of 33 Tribune TV stations in Charter Spectrum markets. Tribune also owns CBS and Fox affiliate stations, including KSWB, so the two companies will be under pressure to strike an accord before Saturday, when the NFL playoffs begin.
In San Diego, for example, KSWB is scheduled to air the Seattle Seahawks-Dallas Cowboys wildcard game Saturday.
The Chicago broadcaster also asked Charter to pay more to carry Tribune’s cable channel, WGN America, in Spectrum’s pay-TV packages.
Viewers will still be able to see programming from Tribune Media’s local stations if they have a digital antenna.
The showdown comes at a troubled time for the pay-TV industry. Like other cable operators, Charter has been struggling to control programming costs in an effort to staunch a migration of customers to lower-cost streaming services. Pay-TV operators had a bruising year in 2018, with the industry projected to lose 1.1 million customers, including more than 200,000 cable TV subscribers from Charter, according to recent estimates from MoffettNathanson Research.
Spectrum is the brand name for Charter’s pay-TV, internet and phone service.
“Charter is committed to holding down the cost of programming and, in turn, the cost our customers pay for cable television service,” the company said Monday in a statement.
There were about 140 television blackouts in 2018. An impasse between Verizon Communications Inc. and TV broadcaster Tegna Inc. resulted in an outage Monday of network affiliate stations in Washington, D.C., Norfolk, Va., and Buffalo, N.Y. on Verizon FiOS systems.
Blackouts in 2018 were down from a record 213 outages in 2017, according to the American Television Alliance, a Washington lobbying group that represents pay-TV operators.
The conflict is over so-called retransmission fees — the money that cable, satellite TV and telephone companies must pay to broadcast local TV station signals as part of their channel lineups. Television station owners in 2018 collected a combined $10 billion in such fees, up from $9.3 billion in 2017, according to the alliance.
Last weekend, Walt Disney Co. and Verizon reached a comprehensive distribution deal that averted an ESPN blackout for 4.6 million Verizon FiOS customers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. As part of that multiyear agreement, Verizon secured the right to carry programming from the Disney-owned WABC station in New York, Philadelphia’s WPVI station, Disney Channel, the ESPN channels, including ESPN Deportes, and the SEC Network, Longhorn Network and the sports ACC Network when it debuts in August.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency
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