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DirecTV asks local TV stations to intervene in TEGNA dispute

The unusual request came in the form of a letter sent by a DirecTV executive to some general managers of TEGNA-owned stations.

The unusual request came in the form of a letter sent by a DirecTV executive to some general managers of TEGNA-owned stations.

A DirecTV satellite dish. (Photo by "Hurricane Geek" via Wikimedia Commons)
A DirecTV satellite dish. (Photo by “Hurricane Geek” via Wikimedia Commons)

A DirecTV executive sent a letter to some high-level employees of local broadcaster TEGNA, asking them to intervene in an ongoing business dispute between the two companies, The Desk has learned.

The request came in the form of a letter sent to the general managers of some TEGNA-owned television stations, about a day after a carriage agreement between TEGNA and DirecTV expired without a new deal in place.

The expiration of the agreement triggered a carriage dispute that saw TEGNA pull around 70 local broadcast stations from DirecTV’s pay television platforms, including DirecTV Stream and U-Verse. The end result is that vast parts of the country are without one or more station affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC or the CW Network.

As is typically the case, the dispute centers around programming fees and other terms that TEGNA is requesting from DirecTV in exchange for the legal right to carry their local TV stations. Those fees are typically passed on to customers in the form of higher bills, and pay TV companies have resisted efforts over the past few years to accept demands for increased fees in order to keep costs reasonable.

The stations were pulled on November 30, the same day TEGNA’s three-year carriage deal with DirecTV expired. One day later, DirecTV’s Chief Programming Officer Rob Thun wrote a letter to the general managers at some TEGNA-owned stations, asking them to help “convince TEGNA To lift its blackout, at least temporarily,” according to a copy of one letter sent to a Sacramento TV executive and obtained by The Desk.

The letter, sent to KXTV (Channel 10) General Manager Risa Omega, said the Sacramento-based ABC affiliate was scheduled to air a highly-anticipated college football game between the University of Washington Huskies and the University of Oregon Ducks. Both schools are part of the Pac-12 Conference, which is expected to dissolve by the end of the season after 10 of the conference’s 12 schools announced plans to depart for other conferences.

“All we need is your permission, and not a single Pac-12 fan need risk missing any action,” Thun wrote in the letter. “It’s entirely your decision whether to grant that permission — or not — but many thousands of local Pac-12 fans, as well as [Sacramento-area] restaurants, sports bars and other venues that benefit from their patronage, are waiting on your answer. It’s a simple yes or no.”

DOCUMENT: Read the letter sent by DirecTV to KXTV GM Risa Omega (PDF)

Thun went on to say that DirecTV would compensate KXTV and TEGNA for their full 24-hour schedule that Friday, rather than the estimated three hours it would take to play the Pac-12 game, with the rate set at whatever price TEGNA and DirecTV settled on for carriage of the station and others once a formal deal was in place.

“Neither KXTV nor TEGNA bear any financial risk by meeting your published commitment to always ‘serve the greater good’ of the Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto community,” Thun said, referencing both the TV market and a phrase that appears on a TEGNA website outlining the company’s self-imposed social responsibilities.

It wasn’t clear if Omega or anyone else at KXTV saw the letter. Omega did not respond to an after-hours email sent Wednesday evening that sought comment on the matter. A spokesperson for TEGNA said the company would follow up on the matter at a later time.

Ultimately, there was no temporary reprieve, and the game went on without carriage of TEGNA’s ABC affiliates on DirecTV’s platforms. A similar situation repeated itself throughout the weekend when college and professional sports aired on TEGNA’s affiliates of the other three major networks were also not available via DirecTV or U-Verse.

Thun expected this would be the outcome. In an interview with The Desk, he affirmed the company sent a handful of letters to TEGNA’s general managers, but said “they’re not going to accept it.”

“They’re not going to help the customer or their viewer,” Thun claimed. “They’re trying to punish us through the lack of having the games [on DirecTV] to command a higher price. So, it’s pretty clear who is wearing the black hat, and where the self-interest lies.”

Meanwhile, DirecTV says it has taken numerous steps to help assuage the programming blackout involving TEGNA’s stations. The company installed antennas at bars, restaurants, hotels and other establishments that subscribe to its DirecTV for Business service, so they can continue offering live sports and news from TEGNA-owned stations. DirecTV has also extended bill credits to customers — and even sent Visa gift cards to some subscribers of DirecTV Stream — to help offset the loss of channels.

DirecTV has also offered TEGNA a unique arrangement where the company accepts whatever rate the broadcaster wants to charge for its channels, so long as those channels could be relegated to an à la carte package, rather than placed in DirecTV’s core programming tier. A TEGNA spokesperson said the offer would essentially force customers to pay a separate fee for channels they once received, and called the proposal “not productive.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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