Tribune and DirecTV Send Mixed Signals

CHICAGO and El SEGUNDO, CALIF.: A retransmission stalemate between Tribune and DirecTV escalated over the weekend in dueling statements and culminated in station blackouts in several markets. 

DirecTV initially issued a statement on Saturday that it accepted Trib’s terms and that no stations would be blacked out. Tribune followed up with one saying no such agreement was reached. DirecTV followed up with another charging Tribune with “bad faith” negotiations, and trying to milk the situation for more because if its bankruptcy status.

The stalemate between the TV station group and the satellite TV provider went public last week, with Tribune warning that stations in several markets would be pulled from DirecTV over the weekend if no retrans agreement was reached. The most recent carriage agreement between the two expired on Saturday at midnight.

DirecTV released a statement early Saturday saying a verbal agreement had been reached between the two over the phone on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.

“We accept the rate proposal Tribune set forth on Thursday for the local channels and look forward to completing this agreement,” DirecTV’s senior vice president of programming, Dan Hartman, said. “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.”

Tribune came back with, “Tribune Broadcasting has not reached an agreement or come to terms with DirecTV on any aspect of its contract, which expires at midnight tonight. Any statement by DirecTV to the contrary is inaccurate and misleading.”

A few hours later, at around 11 p.m. EST, Tribune said it was pulling TV stations in 19 markets from DirecTV, and WGN America from the provider’s national lineup.

“By federal law, without an agreement in place, DirecTV cannot carry the signal of Tribune’s local television stations,” the broadcaster’s statement said. “Tribune’s local stations in the Eastern time zone will be the first to be denied by DirecTV to its subscribers. Stations in other time zones will follow.”

Tribune said that DirecTV had “never compensated” it for the station feeds and that it was asking for what “DirecTV already has in place with hundreds of other broadcasters and program providers.”

DirecTV fired back a sharply worded statement asserting that Tribune was taking advantage of the situation to gain leverage with creditors.

“We’re extremely perplexed as Tribune management and DirecTV had a handshake deal on Thursday with an agreed-upon rate for their channels,” the satellite provider said. “Their actions are the true definition of ‘bad faith’ in every sense of the term. We can’t help but wonder whether Tribune’s ability to negotiate a reasonable retransmission agreement with DirecTV is being undermined by the complexities and competing interests in their lengthy bankruptcy process.

“Despite our best efforts to compensate Tribune fairly for both WGN America and the local stations, it seems they are focused on unduly benefitting their creditors rather than viewers. 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,” the statement from DirecTV continued.
“If the local stations and WGN America do come down at midnight, it will be 100 percent Tribune’s decision to take them away from customers,” the statement said. “To come so close and then renege on terms that affect millions of customers defies Tribune’s long history of protecting the public interest. However, we hope Tribune does the right thing and honors their word, keeps the channels on and puts customers before creditors.”H

The blackout affected CW affiliates in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Hartford-New Haven, Conn.; Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Portland, Ore.; Washington and St. Louis, Mo.; Fox affiliates Grand Rapids, Mich.; Harrisburg-Lancaster, Pa.; Hartford-New Haven, Indianapolis Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego, Calif., and Seattle; the ABC affiliate in New Orleans; and MyNetworkTV affils in Philadelphia, and Washington.

Tribune’s flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, reported that the blackout remained in effect as of at 8:36 p.m. Central time Sunday.
~ Deborah D. McAdams