Cox Media stations warn of impending blackout on DirecTV

(Image: AT&T/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

Stations owned by Cox Media Group have started warning viewers that their channels may be blacked out on AT&T-owned systems next week.

In notices posted on local TV websites, Cox Media says the issue stems from an expiring contract with AT&T to distribute its channels on AT&T TV and satellite system DirecTV in exchange for financial compensation.

Those contracts are known as carriage agreements, and when they’re close to expiring, programmers like Cox Media and distributors like AT&T try to work out a new deal to keep channels on their lineups.

But in recent years, programmers have started demanding more money in exchange for the rights to re-distribute channels on pay TV systems. Distributors have resisted those efforts, saying the higher fees paid for the channels ultimately lead to higher bills for customers.

The situation between Cox Media and AT&T is no different from the dozens of carriage disputes that have played out in recent memory. If one comes to form, the channels will be removed, each side will blame the other, customers will lose access to local news and their favorite programming and, inevitably, a new deal will be hammered out that leads to higher bills in the future.

Exactly how long a dispute will play out is uncertain: In the past, channels were removed for a few days or a week at the most, but distributors like AT&T and Dish Network are starting to hold their ground in a way that leads to weeks-long and sometimes months-long channel disruptions on their systems.

Interestingly, the note posted to one Cox Media group contains some misinformation: On the website of Memphis FOX affiliate WHBQ-TV (Channel 13), viewers are told that “by law, [WHBQ] must negotiate carriage agreements with cable and satellite companies like AT&T/DirecTV.”

That’s not entirely true: Local stations have the option to negotiate contractual agreements with distributors for financial compensation. But they can also demand cable and satellite systems distribute their broadcast signals under a little-known federal law called the “must carry” rule. Few stations opt to enforce the law because it requires them to give up the right to seek financial compensation for their signals.

Another station appears to be spreading misinformation to its viewers: Atlanta ABC station WSB-TV (Channel 2) told viewers on its website that its channel would only go dark if AT&T and DirecTV pulled the signal.

“We cannot prevent AT&T and DirecTV from re-transmitting [our] stations,” the message said. “They go dark only if AT&T and DirecTV so chooses.”

But if Cox Media group requires AT&T to pay for its signals, AT&T has no choice but to remove them. If they continued to broadcast the signals without compensation and absent a request from Cox Media to enforce “must carry,” AT&T would be engaged in content piracy.

In a statement, an AT&T spokesperson correctly said it’s up to Cox Media to decide if their signals could continue on AT&T TV and DirecTV once its carriage agreement expires next Tuesday.

“We want to keep the Cox stations in their local lineups, but Cox alone has exclusive control over which homes are allowed to receive ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CW in certain cities,” the spokesperson said.

It appears things are headed for a dispute, and the timing couldn’t be worse: Cox Media controls the CBS affiliates in six television markets, and those viewers could be left without the ability to watch the upcoming Super Bowl if a resolution isn’t finalized by February 7.

Viewers who could potential miss out on the Super Bowl telecast include those who subscribe to AT&T and live in the following areas:

  • Yuma, Arizona (KYMA, Channel 13)
  • Eureka, California (KVIQ, Channel 14)
  • Jacksonville, Florida (WJAX, Channel 47)
  • Greenville, Mississippi (WXVT, Channel 17)
  • Dayton, Ohio (WHIO, Channel 7)
  • Seattle, Washington (KIRO, Channel7)

Some of those viewers might be able to watch the game using Locast, a not-for-profit streaming service that carries local channels in some markets. Others could watch a free, national feed of the game via the CBS Sports App.