About that DirecTV-Block Communications carriage dispute

If you watch television via any of AT&T’s television services, which include DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, or U-Verse, and you live in an area of the country where one or more of the local stations that those AT&T-owned services would normally provide is owned or otherwise operated by a company called Block Communications, those stations have been blacked out since late last week on DirecTV, DirectTV Now, and U-Verse because of an ongoing carriage dispute between AT&T and Block.

The stations affected include, in alphabetical order by state of license, then city of license, then call letters:

  • WAND – NBC affiliate licensed to Decatur, Illinois and serving the Champaign-Decatur-Springfield, Illinois DMA
  • WBKI – CW affiliate licensed to Salem, Indiana and serving the Louisville, Kentucky DMA
  • WDRB – Fox and MyNetworkTV affiliate licensed to Louisville, Kentucky and serving the Louisville, Kentucky DMA
  • WLIO – NBC, Fox, and MyNetworkTV affiliate licensed to Lima, Ohio and serving the Lima, Ohio DMA
  • WOHL-CD – ABC and CBS affiliate licensed to Lima, Ohio and serving the Lima, Ohio DMA

The Lima, Ohio DMA is considerably smaller than the other two DMAs, as it is anchored by a relatively small city, and, being situated between larger media markets in the Dayton, Ohio DMA and the Toledo, Ohio DMA, the Lima DMA covers a relatively small area in Ohio. The Champaign-Decatur-Springfield, Illinois DMA is anchored by three urban areas, Champaign/Urbana, Decatur, and Springfield, with a few hundred thousand residents combined, and the DMA covers much of central and east-central Illinois. The Louisville, Kentucky DMA is anchored by an urban area, Louisville, with roughly a million residents, and the DMA covers much of north-central and central Kentucky, as well as much of south-central Indiana.

I am directly affected by this issue, since I live near the eastern end of the Champaign-Decatur-Springfield media market, and I live in a household that is a DirecTV customer, so, with the main WAND over-the-air transmitter being in northeastern Macon County, one potential workaround, receiving the main WAND over-the-air signal to get NBC programming, would be virtually impossible. There is a low-power translator (i.e., broadcast relay station or broadcast repeater station) of WAND, W23EQ-D, with its transmitter located in my home county, and the coverage area of the translator would appear to make reception of the station easy for my household. However, as the house that I live in has metal siding, receiving any kind of broadcast television signal over-the-air is extremely difficult, and an outdoor antenna assembly would probably cost more than one month of DirecTV service. On a related note, and for people in the Jacksonville, Illinois area, there is a translator of WAND, W29ES-D, serving that area of Illinois over-the-air.

Keep in mind that most local television stations in this country, even those affiliated with a major English-language network (these are CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and The CW; MyNetworkTV is officially considered a syndication service by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)), are owned by companies other than the network(s) they are affiliated with, and this is virtually universal in medium-sized and small markets. When a pay television provider (such as a cable company, the satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network, or another type of pay television provider) refuses to pay the owner of a local television station for the rights for the particular provider to carry the station, that results in the station affected being blacked out on the provider until and unless an agreement is reached by the parties in question, in this particular case, AT&T and Block Communications. Since AT&T and Block Communications have refused to come to an agreement for Block-owned stations to be carried on AT&T’s pay television services (DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, and U-Verse), that results in not only local programming (such as local newscasts) and syndicated programming that is carried by the station, but also the network programming that is carried by the station as well, since the owner of the station effectively has broadcast rights to the network(s) they are affiliated with within their DMA.

Block Communications is claiming that AT&T pulled their stations from its DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, and U-Verse lineups “without warning”:

“The satellite service provider and the television stations started working on a new contract several months ago, but DIRECTV took the aggressive action of pulling programming from both networks (DIRECTV and U-Verse) without warning on Friday morning,” WAND said. 

Source

AT&T is claiming that Block Communications “is demanding a significant fee increase”, in reference to the fee, which is called a retransmission consent fee, that pay television providers have to pay to the owners of local television stations in order to be able to carry the stations:

Phil Hayes, AT&T Corporate Communications media relations liaison in Illinois, said the company wants to bring WAND back to the Champaign, Springfield and Decatur customers’ local lineups.

“We want to prevent our local customers from enduring any extended Block blackout and continue to work toward a new agreement,” he said in an email. “The station’s owner, Block Communications, is demanding a significant fee increase and has disconnected WAND’s most loyal viewers here before.”

Source

While the DMA that I live in has been negatively affected by the AT&T-Block Communications carriage dispute, the other two DMAs that are negatively affected have seen particularly embarrassing negative affects from the carriage dispute.

In the case of the Louisville, Kentucky DMA, the market’s CW affiliate, WBKI, is currently unavailable via the AT&T-owned DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, and U-Verse due to the carriage dispute. Keep in mind that the CW network is 50% owned by WarnerMedia, which is, like DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, and U-Verse, a subsidiary of AT&T, resulting in the bizarre situation of an affiliate of a network partially owned by AT&T not being available on AT&T-owned television services in one DMA, the Louisville, Kentucky DMA.

In the case of the Lima, Ohio DMA, the market’s ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and MyNetworkTV affiliates are all owned by Block Communications. This is because the market only has one full-power station (WLIO, the NBC, Fox, and MyNetworkTV affiliate for the Lima DMA), which is owned by Block, and the ABC and CBS affiliate for the Lima market is the low-powered WOHL-CD, which is operated by Block, and, due to the fact that low-power stations, like WOHL-CD, are not subject to what few concentration of ownership limits (i.e., ownership caps) the FCC still imposes on local TV station owners and operators, that is how Block is able to get away with owning the ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates in the same market. Lima’s CW affiliate appears to be a cable-only affiliate that is part of The CW Plus small-market service; if the CW affiliate for the Lima DMA is not carried on DirecTV in the Lima DMA, that would result in the situation of no local commercial television station being carried via DirecTV in the Lima DMA due to the carriage dispute between AT&T and Block.

While AT&T maintains that they don’t want a blackout of Block Communications-owned stations to continue for an extended duration of time, there is evidence pointing to a resolution to the dispute possibly not occurring in the near future.

In regards to the AT&T side of the dispute, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators from the Mountain West states is demanding that DirecTV carry the applicable local channels in a handful of small TV markets where DirecTV currently carries distant network affiliates:

Senators Jon Tester (D-MT), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and John Barrasso (R-WY) wrote to AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan Thursday, expressing concern that 12 of America’s smallest media markets don’t have local-into-locals from DirecTV. Those include markets such as Helena, MT, and Grand Junction, CO.

“Despite technological advances that allow satellite companies to serve local channels into local markets in any location, the customers in these 12 media markets still receive limited or no access to locally broadcasted network stations through their subscriptions,” they wrote, noting that folks living in remote areas are often receiving distant signals from places like NYC or L.A. “We acknowledge that the distant signal provisions in current law allows this, however, we do not see why AT&T-DirecTV could not work to minimize the distance and provide local news from within the subscriber’s region.”

It’s probably no coincidence that this letter comes as Congress gets ready to review of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, which expires at the end of the year. Among other things, the expiring legislation grants a compulsory copyright license to DISH and DirecTV to retransmit distant broadcast signals. AT&T could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday.

Source

It’s pretty clear that DirecTV has a cavalier attitude towards airing the applicable local channels in every U.S. DMA, since there are still a handful of DMAs where DirecTV has refused to provide any local channels despite having repeatedly promised to do so, whereas DirecTV’s main competitor, DISH, provides the applicable local channels where DirecTV doesn’t, which is predominantly, if not entirely, in very small markets west of the Mississippi River.

In regards to the Block Communications side of the dispute, remember that Block’s flagship property is not a television station, but rather the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper that serves the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, which has been the subject of a number of controversies in the past couple of years or so, including:

  • An incident in the Post-Gazette newsroom where the publisher of the paper, John Block, who is also the twin brother of Block Communications chairman Allen Block, entered the newsroom, allegedly while intoxicated, and lashed out in anger at a sign promoting the side of the labor union that represents Post-Gazette employees in a labor dispute
  • The firing of Rob Rogers, a political cartoonist who was critical of Republican President Donald Trump
  • The hiring of Steve Kelley, a political cartoonist who has drawn cartoons that are sexist in nature, including a cartoon depicting Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as thinking about “too much botox…”
  • The appointment of Keith Burris, who has written editorials with a right-wing, pro-Trump slant, to be the Post-Gazette executive editor.
  • Ending publishing of Tuesday and Saturday editions of the Post-Gazette, an unusual move for a large-city newspaper.

This is an unconfirmed observation based on circumstantial evidence, but, given that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette coverage area is anchored by a strongly Democratic city, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and that the Post-Gazette is no longer being published daily, among other controversies, it would not surprise me if the Post-Gazette was losing a significant number of subscribers (and, thus, losing money for Block Communications), although I have no way of verifying whether or not that is true. If Block is in financial trouble (again, I have no way of verifying whether or not that is true), that could explain why they’re demanding more money from AT&T/DirecTV.

UPDATE 3/23/2019 – As a result of a new carriage agreement being agreed to yesterday, Block Communications-owned television stations have been restored on DirecTV, DirecTV NOW, and U-Verse.