An ongoing battle between Comcast and Nexstar Media Group reached a peak this week when the broadcast giant pulled its New York City CW station WPIX-TV from cable systems in the tri-state area.
The issue is one part of a lengthy legal dispute between Comcast and Nexstar over who owns WPIX (Channel 11) amid a series of clever financial transactions over the last three years.
WPIX was owned by Tribune Media until 2018, when Nexstar Media Group agreed to acquire dozens of Tribune stations across the country. In order to satisfy federal ownership rules, Nexstar agreed to divest WPIX to the E. W. Scripps company. Mission Broadcasting later acquired WPIX in 2020.
As part of Mission’s purchase of WPIX, the station’s operational and managerial control was given to Nexstar under an arrangement known as a local marketing agreement. Those types of agreements are common across the country, but Comcast thinks it’s a clever loophole designed to allow Nexstar to skirt federal ownership rules without technically owning the station.
Last year, Comcast complained to the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that Nexstar’s operational control of WPIX makes it a de facto owner of the station, in violation of federal law. The complaint came while Comcast was in the middle of a retransmission dispute with Mission over some of its other local broadcast stations, one that was eventually settled.
Nexstar fired back by filing a lawsuit in a New York federal court accusing Comcast of failing to pay it millions of dollars owed in retransmission consent fees. A contract between the two sides purportedly included a stipulation that Comcast would pay retransmission fees for stations under Nexstar’s operational control, even if the company did not own those stations outright, Nexstar’s court filing asserted. The legal filing specifically cited WPIX as a station covered under that agreement.
“In a series of letters spanning April through July 2021, Comcast stated that it would not comply with its obligations under the Comcast-Nexstar Agreement, and confirmed that it had not been (and would not be) paying the fees required under that agreement for WPIX,” attorneys representing Nexstar wrote in the court filing.
The case is still pending in federal court, with both sides negotiating over discovery evidence in the case, according to a federal docket reviewed by The Desk on Tuesday. A judge has ordered both sides to produce the evidence by June of next year.
In the meantime, WPIX viewers in the New York City tri-state area will be without their local CW station if they have Comcast service, possibly for a while. Comcast and Nexstar’s current carriage deal is set to expire at the end of the year, and a new deal could include carriage of WPIX and other stations managed but not owned by Nexstar.
During a carriage dispute, a broadcast outlet typically runs a message on their website alerting viewers that a cable or satellite provider has dropped their favorite station, and urging viewers to switch to a competing service. No message of the sort was available on the WPIX website when The Desk viewed it on Tuesday, suggesting Nexstar is deliberately keeping the station off Comcast’s systems and isn’t trying to negotiate for the station’s return.
The WPIX blackout doesn’t involve cable television viewers in the immediate New York City area, because those boroughs are served by Charter’s Spectrum. But it does impact viewers in the greater New York City television market, including residents and businesses in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, where Comcast competes for video customers with Verizon Fios.
Unfortunately, because WPIX is a CW station, there are few streaming alternatives that have agreements to carry the channel. One of the few is YouTube TV, which offers WPIX in their base programming package at $65 a month along with other local television stations in the New York metropolitan area.