Monday, April 2, 2012

Tribune Co. stations go dark for millions of DirecTV subscribers

, Tribune reporter

DirecTV subscribers in 19 U.S. markets saw all Tribune Co. television stations go dark Sunday as a contract expired, and a very public battle over retransmission fees hit home.  (Paul Taggart, Bloomberg photo / April 1, 2012)

DirecTV subscribers in 19 U.S. markets saw all Tribune Co. television stations go dark Sunday as a contract expired and a battle over retransmission fees hit home.

The blackout began at midnight Saturday after Tribune Broadcasting said it failed to reach an agreement with the satellite television provider in their contract negotiations.

"This situation is extremely unfortunate," Nils Larsen, Tribune Broadcasting president, said in a statement Saturday night. "We don't want anyone to lose the valuable programming we provide, but we simply cannot get fair compensation from DirecTV and we cannot allow DirecTV to continue taking advantage of us."

A Tribune spokesman on Sunday said the companies had yet to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for DirecTV reiterated a claim that the two sides had reached an agreement Thursday, only to have the Tribune renege:

"Tribune won't admit that we had come to terms earlier, nor will they budge from their current outrageous ask. Regardless, we remain willing and available at a moment's notice to resolve this as soon as possible."

Chicago-based Tribune Co., which owns numerous broadcasting and newspaper properties, including the Chicago Tribune, is seeking retransmission compensation from DirecTV to carry its 23 local television stations and WGN America. Contract negotiations broke down last week, with Tribune Co. threatening to pull the plug on programming.

The 1992 Cable Act gave broadcasters the right to seek retransmission consent fees, which usually range from a few cents to $1 per subscriber per month.

The Tribune has never received any fees from DirecTV to carry its local stations but has been compensated for WGN America programming, according to executives.

Stations affected include local CW and Fox affiliates, cutting off shows such as "American Idol," "Glee," "New Girl" and "Gossip Girl." Major League Baseball's opening day is this week, and DirecTV subscribers are losing access to the Chicago Cubs and White Sox via WGN America, the Mets on WPIX-TV in New York, and the Phillies on WPHL-TV in Philadelphia.

El Segundo, Calif.-based DirecTV has 19.9 million subscribers, making it the nation's second-largest provider of multichannel video programming distribution behind Comcast Cable. Tribune Co. Chief Executive Eddy Hartenstein is a former CEO of DirecTV.

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