Cox Media Group this week began warning viewers of a possible dispute with satellite and streaming pay TV provider DirecTV.
The dispute could see Cox Media pull more than a dozen local channels from DirecTV, DirecTV via Internet, DirecTV Stream and U-Verse TV as early as next Friday, February 2 if both sides are unable to reach an agreement to keep those channels on the platform.
More than a million television households could be affected by the dispute, though the actual number of affected households could be lower, since DirecTV only has a portion of the pay television accounts in each impacted area.
Viewers living in Seattle and Dayton, Ohio stand to lose out the most if DirecTV and Cox Media engage in a multi-week dispute: In those markets, Cox Media owns the local affiliate of CBS, which will offer Super Bowl LVIII (58) on February 11.
If those three CBS affiliates are dropped from DirecTV and U-Verse, viewers in those markets could still watch CBS programming with a free, over-the-air antenna, or they could sign up for Paramount Plus with Showtime, which will offer a streaming version of the Super Bowl. DirecTV and U-Verse subscribers can also watch a kid-friendly version of the game on Nickelodeon.
The full list of stations that would be impacted by a dispute between DirecTV and Cox are:
- KEVU-CD (Channel 23) in Eugene, Oregon
- KIRO (Channel 7, CBS) in Seattle
- KLSR (Channel 34, Fox) in Eugene, Oregon
- WAXN (Channel 64) in Charlotte, North Carolina
- WFOX-DT4 (Channel 30, Telemundo) in Jacksonville, Florida
- WFTV (Channel 9, ABC) in Orlando
- WFXT (Channel 25, Fox) in Boston
- WHIO (Channel 7, CBS) in Dayton, Ohio
- WPXI (Channel 11, NBC) In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- WRDQ (Channel 27) in Orlando
- WSB-TV (Channel 2, ABC) in Atlanta
- WSOC (Channel 9, ABC) in Charlotte, North Carolina
- WSOC-DT2 (Channel 9, Telemundo) in Charlotte, North Carolina
As is typical, the dispute centers around fees that broadcasters like Cox Media demand from pay TV distributors like DirecTV in exchange for the rights to offer their channels to subscribers. Over time, DirecTV and other companies have complained that these fees have increased without much justification, particularly as more premium programming like live sports and prime-time shows shift to streaming platforms.
In a statement, a spokesperson for DirecTV said both sides are still working toward a possible resolution, one that could keep the affected Cox Media channels on its satellite and streaming platforms beyond February 2 — but there’s no guarantee an agreement will be reached.
“We are working with Cox Media Group to reach a new agreement that will align the value and quality customers receive with the price they pay,” the DirecTV spokesperson said in an email to The Desk on Friday. “Our request to Cox Media Group is simple: Don’t force your viewers, who are our customers, to pay an unwarranted rate increase for free news, sports and entertainment that is widely available on local station websites, through an over-the-air digital antenna and direct-to-consumer streaming platforms.”
It is not the first time DirecTV has squared off with a broadcaster over fees: Last year, DirecTV was forced to pull over 200 local television stations owned by Nexstar Media Group and TEGNA after distribution agreements with each broadcaster ended. In those disputes, both companies were accused of demanding more money for their channels; in each case, the disputes were resolved with no financial or other terms revealed publicly.
Fees paid by distributors like DirecTV are passed on to customers in their bills, and with cable and satellite subscription fees skyrocketing, pay television companies have started to take a harder stance against what they feel are unfavorable terms wrapped into those carriage agreements. The end result is more-frequent programming blackouts — and federal regulators have started to take notice.
Last December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved forward with a proposal to create a centralized database that would collect information about programming-related disputes between cable and satellite companies. If adopted, companies like DirecTV would be responsible for filing timely notices with the FCC about any business-related dispute that leads to a loss of channels for its customers.
Proponents at the FCC say the centralized database would help consumers evaluate which platforms experienced more service disruptions compared to other service providers. The effect would serve two purposes: Allow customers to shop around for the platform that fits their programming needs, and dissuade broadcasters and satellite companies from engaging in those disputes in the first place.
Cable and satellite companies say placing the burden on them to report programming-related disputes would not have the intended effect, because the disputes are typically started by a broadcaster’s demand for higher fees — and it isn’t clear how a centralized database will do anything to prevent broadcasters from continuing the practice.
“Every blackout — every single one — is caused by the same thing: Broadcasters want consumers to pay higher prices,” said Cora Mandy, a spokesperson for the American Television Alliance (ATVA), which counts some cable and satellite companies as members.
Mandy continued: “We appreciate the Commission’s acknowledgement that blackouts are a problem. However, we’d like to see the focus on the broadcasters, who increased retransmission consent fees from $200 million in 2006 to $11.7 billion in 2019 — an unbelievable 5,359 percent – rather than just on the companies that are negotiating to keep prices down for their customers.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said DirecTV was set to lose three CBS affiliates owned or operated by Cox Media, based on a list of Cox-owned or operated stations. A spokesperson for DirecTV later clarified the Jacksonville, Florida affiliate is not affected by the dispute because of its ownership structure.