An ongoing dispute between Nexstar Media Group and satellite TV broadcaster DirecTV is making it difficult for residents and businesses in Hawaii to get critical access to local news updates following an outbreak of wildfires there.
Since early July, DirecTV subscribers in Maui and elsewhere have been without access to their local Fox affiliate, KHON (Channel 2) as well as independent station KHII (Channel 9) after a contract to carry the channels expired.
The situation involves how much Nexstar wants DirecTV to pay in retransmission fees for the rights to carry KHON and KHII, which are among the two largest broadcasters of local news on the Hawaiian Islands. DirecTV says Nexstar has demanded significantly more money for the rights to carry the stations, a fact Nexstar does not dispute.
The carriage dispute is impacting millions of Americans, who have lost access to one or more major network affiliated stations owned by Nexstar, the largest independent owner of broadcast stations in the country. But the situation is particularly dire in Hawaii, because most television viewers rely on satellite for their TV needs.
Hawaii is no stranger to extreme climate-related events, but the latest wildfires have been particularly brutal after they were fueled by winds from a passing hurricane earlier this month. Nearly 100 people have died in the wildfire, making it the deadliest in American history. Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed.
For nearly two weeks, residents and businesses have turned to local news stations for reliable, ongoing updates about the fires. Most of the major television stations, including KHON and KHII, have translators in the city of Wailuku, which serves the island of Maui and has been largely spared by the direct effects of the wildfires.
The terrain of the island can make receiving over-the-air broadcasts difficult in places, and while streaming and cable services are available, most residents and businesses use satellite platforms like DirecTV to watch local news and national programming. Since July, DirecTV customers have had just three options for local news: KITV (Channel 4, ABC), KGMB (Channel 5, CBS) and KHNL (Channel 13, NBC). Two of those stations — KGMB and KHNL — are owned by the same company.
Shortly after the fires started, DirecTV reached out to Nexstar asking if the company would be willing to give it a reprieve in order to offer local news updates to customers impacted by the wildfires, according to a person familiar with the matter. The proposal would have allowed DirecTV to offer KHON’s local news broadcasts through the satellite service for one week, while keeping the blackout on syndicated and national news programming in place, the person said.
Nexstar did not acknowledge the offer, an apparent sign that the broadcaster was holding firm on its demand for more money. A spokesperson for DirecTV affirmed on Friday the Nexstar-owned stations were still unavailable, and denied reaching out to Nexstar about them in recent weeks, but affirmed the company was working with residents and businesses to restore satellite service in affected areas.
Even residents who don’t subscribe to DirecTV are impacted by Nexstar’s antics: In January, the company ordered its 160 local stations to stop offering live access to local news broadcasts online, requiring viewers to watch local news through an antenna or on cable. Local news streams are still available on Nexstar-owned websites, but they are delayed by two hours.
The two-hour delay remained in place even as the wildfires raged on Maui, two Nexstar employees confirmed to The Desk. To make problems worse, a link to a real-time breaking news feed set aside for emergencies resolved to a broken webpage, which was still the case when The Desk visited the KHON website on Monday.
But Nexstar did change one thing during the wildfire: A banner at the top of the KHON website that informed DirecTV subscribers about the programming blackout was quietly removed. The removal was intended to “limit the public exposure” to the ongoing programming dispute while residents, businesses and government officials were turning to local news websites for information about the wildfires, one source said.
“[Nexstar] didn’t want to be seen as putting business before local news, which is, of course, exactly what they did,” the source, who wanted to be identified only as a non-senior Nexstar executive, said during a phone interview.
The situation between Nexstar and DirecTV is playing out at a time when federal regulators are weighing whether to reclassify some streaming television services under the same banner as traditional cable and satellite companies. The proposal would ultimately require some streaming cable alternatives like Sling TV, YouTube TV and DirecTV Stream to negotiate carriage of local stations directly with independent owners like Nexstar.
Nexstar is pushing hard for the FCC to do just that. Last month, the company was one of several to participate in the founding of a new lobbying group called the “Coalition for Local News,” which leverages its local newsrooms to justify the need for the FCC’s rules to change.
“The Coalition for Local News is dedicated to the belief that local news is essential to the well-being of local communities across the nation and is a vital pillar of American democracy,” the group said in a statement. “As the most-trusted source of news for Americans, local news broadcasts provide timely coverage of important issues and events, emergency weather service, and access to lifesaving information.”