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Cable Tech

TV retrans battles heat up for the holidays

Two major US pay-TV providers – AT&T and Dish Network – are locking horns with broadcasters as their respective carriage deals in certain markets near their expiration date.

AT&T's deal with Virginia-based broadcaster Tegna for DirecTV and U-verse was set to expire tonight at 7 p.m. ET, but the broadcaster noted online that talks with AT&T have been extended until December 1. Tegna is working to "reach a fair agreement" to avoid a blackout, the broadcaster said.

WUSA, a Tegna CBS affiliate in Washington, DC, noted that negotiations with DirecTV continue. But it added that the affiliate still has retrans deals solidly in place with other pay-TV providers in the area, including Dish, Cox Communications, Comcast and Verizon Fios.

Tegna, which operates ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS stations in dozens of markets across the country, has been running crawls on live TV broadcasts warning of a potential blackout in markets such as Denver and Dallas, while also asking DirecTV and U-verse customers in those markets to urge the pay-TV providers to step up and strike a new deal.

"We're disappointed to see Tegna put our customers into the middle of private negotiations," AT&T said in a statement, according to Next TV. "We want to keep the Tegna stations in our local lineups. Yet by law, Tegna has exclusive control over which homes are allowed to receive ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX or CW in certain cities, regardless of what provider they choose."

Dish, meanwhile, claims that Nexstar Media Group is threatening to black out its customers' access to 164 local channels in 120 markets across 42 states and Washington, D.C.

As is common in these cases as existing deals near their end without a renewal, Dish claims that Nexstar is demanding an "unreasonable rate increase." But Dish also contends that Nexstar is trying to force Dish to carry WGN America in a new deal and claims that the broadcaster is attempting to "strong-arm" companies such as Dish after making a recent string of local broadcast station acquisitions.

"Since becoming the nation's largest local station owner, Nexstar has increased its annual revenue by $1 billion a year. Now, it has set its sights on DISH customers as their next big payday," Brian Neylon, group president at Dish TV, said in a statement.

Nexstar countered that it has been "negotiating tirelessly and in good faith" with Dish and offering the satellite TV giant "the same fair market rates" offered to other large distribution partners. The broadcaster also points out that Dish-broadcaster battles are commonplace, highlighting scrums Dish has had this year alone with broadcasters and programmers that include The E.W. Scripps Company, Apollo, Mission Broadcasting and NFL Network.

Nexstar also noted that it has completed deals with distribution partners covering more than 50% of the company's national footprint since acquiring Tribune Media in the fall of 2019, a deal that made Nexstar the nation's largest local TV station owner.

Retrans battles carry more weight as pay-TV market struggles

Retrans battles between pay-TV providers and broadcasters aren't uncommon, as negotiations occasionally drag out to the point of a potential blackout. However, the weight of these skirmishes – particularly among major, traditional pay-TV service providers – are becoming heavier amid subscriber losses caused by rising prices and consumer interest in OTT-delivered alternatives.

Meanwhile, virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPDs) are also under pressure as they attempt to keep margins in check despite rising programming costs. Several vMVPDs, including YouTube TV, fuboTV and Hulu, have been forced to raise prices in recent weeks and months.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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