January 14, 2011 in Business

Playoffs or not, TV fight goes on

DirecTV customers may not get Seahawks game
By The Spokesman-Review
 

In this corner, thousands of people who just want their NFL football games and “American Idol.” In the other, three media companies fighting over who’s going to pay what for television signals on satellite service DirecTV.

A prolonged contract dispute between DirecTV and Spokane TV station KAYU threatens to send many TV viewers hunting for options over the next week, if the dispute continues.

Meanwhile, a second possible blackout looms this weekend if negotiations between DirecTV and Spokane broadcaster KHQ-TV don’t produce a deal. KHQ is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

The Fox blackout is inspiring some distraught satellite customers to consider reconnecting rabbit-ears antennas in order to get the network’s programs over the air.

Since Jan. 1, more than 100,000 TV customers in Washington and Oregon have been unable to watch Fox shows like “The Simpsons,” “House” and the soon-to-return “American Idol.”

The signal blackout stems from a retransmission-rate dispute between Northwest Broadcasting Inc., and Los Angeles-based DirecTV.

Northwest Broadcasting operates KAYU and Fox stations in Yakima, Medford, Ore., Pendleton, Ore., and the Tri-Cities. The Spokane channel is also carried to DirecTV customers in North Idaho.

Northwest Broadcasting is asking for a roughly 600 percent increase in the fee DirecTV pays to retransmit the signal, DirecTV has said in press releases.

DirecTV officials have asked Northwest Broadcasting to allow the Fox shows to continue until an agreement is signed.

Northwest Broadcasting refused that option. Jon Rand, COO of Northwest Broadcasting, said he has heard about some DirecTV customers dropping their service because of the dispute.

Rand said discussions with DirecTV will continue, with the possibility of a settlement occurring today or Saturday.

“Customers are finding other ways to view our station, whether by switching to Comcast cable, Dish Network or setting up an antenna to receive the signal over the air,” Rand said.

KHQ’s two-year deal with DirecTV ended Dec. 31, and the parties extended the deadline to midnight Saturday.

Unless a new deal is struck, KHQ will request DirecTV pull its programs from its menu, said Patricia McRae, KHQ’s president and general manager.

“We will continue working on this, right through Saturday if we have to,” McRae said. She added that there will not be another deadline extension.

The timing of the Fox Network blackout especially irks pro football fans. Sunday’s broadcast of the playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears will be carried by Fox. So will a conference championship game on Jan. 23, then culminating with Fox carrying the Super Bowl on Feb. 6.

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer would not comment on the number of people in Eastern Washington and North Idaho canceling subscriptions. He said DirecTV is letting some customers know they can automatically view an alternate Fox feed on channels 398 or 399.

Mercer said the FCC allows viewers who cannot receive KAYU over the air to ask DirecTV to substitute the Los Angeles Fox Network feed for the Spokane broadcasts. That would provide them NFL games and primetime shows, he said.

But it’s available only to DirecTV customers who generally live well outside Spokane County or in geographical areas where over-the-air signals are not easily received, he said.

McRae and Mercer agree that in the Spokane TV market, DirecTV ranks well behind its competitors. McRae said roughly one half of all its viewers get the KHQ feed on cable television. Dish Network comes next, followed by DirecTV, McRae said.


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