DirecTV, AT&T TV to lose Hearst stations on Thursday

The logo of AT&T-owned DirecTV. (Photo: Supplied)

Dozens of local broadcast stations owned by Hearst Television will be pulled from pay TV systems owned by AT&T unless both sides can reach an agreement by Thursday afternoon.

A retransmission agreement between both companies lapsed just before the start of the new year, but both Hearst and AT&T agreed to extend carriage of more than three dozen national ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates through Thursday morning.

That temporary agreement ends at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, according to a statement provided by one Hearst Television station. If a new agreement is not reached, 34 stations across the United States will be removed from DirecTV, AT&T TV and AT&T TV Now.

Once rare, carriage disputes have become increasingly common in the pay television landscapes as programmers like Hearst invest more money into local news and sports programming, then request distributors like AT&T pay more in exchange for the rights to carry certain channels. Other programmers, notably those who operate cable-only channels, have demanded cable and satellite operators carry “junk digital” channels that are typically among the lowest-rated national stations. In either case, when contracts are renewed, it usually leads to a fee increase for customers.

Earlier this week, an AT&T spokesperson said it was disappointed Hearst decided to drag what it considered to be a private business negotiation into the public arena.

“We want to keep Hearst’s local stations in our customers’ lineups but must have Hearst’s permission,” the spokesperson said. “We remain on the side of consumer choice and value, whereas Hearst is known to often withhold its stations to try to increase its fees for free broadcast TV.”

Local stations operated by Hearst are typically receivable in most areas with a free television antenna. Stations owned by Hearst include Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA-TV (Channel 3), Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL-TV (Channel 11), Des Moines CBS affiliate KCCI (Channel 8) and Oklahoma City ABC affiliate KOCO-TV (Channel 5).

In a separate statement, a Hearst spokesperson said the company had a track successful record of “concluding carriage agreements with cable companies and other satellite distributors with no disruption of service to subscribers,” though Dish Network customers were left without Hearst stations for several weeks during a similar dispute in 2017.

Hearst’s dispute with AT&T comes as local broadcast stations are set to receive an influx of cash from political advertising in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. That money can make or break a station’s budget; with that in mind, it’s likely the dispute between Hearst and AT&T won’t be as prolonged as the one between Hearst and Dish a few years ago.

Hearst has an agreement to stream local news programming through the NewsOn app, a free service available on smartphones, tablets and smart TVs. Local news broadcasts are also available to stream on station websites.