Broadcasters fighting satcaster's AutoHop feature

The clash between Dish and Gannett won’t be the last of the satcaster’s many rumbles with broadcasters: The latter are taking on AutoHop one by one as retrans renewals come up and a legal case winds its way through the courts.

Gannett’s retransmission deal with Dish expired at midnight Sunday, and the disagreement was resolved by Monday morning with no blackouts but a significant rate increase to cover Dish’s controversial Hopper DVR feature, which lets viewers watch network primetime shows commercial free the day after they air. Broadcasters have sued for copyright infringement, and a judge in Los Angeles is considering a request for a preliminary injunction.

“AutoHop cannot exist,” insisted CBS chief Leslie Moonves at an investor conference earlier this month. CBS hasn’t taken any official action, but AutoHop will overshadow renewal talks when they come around. CBS wouldn’t say when that will be, but it’s not imminent.

Other station owners will do the same. “If they are going to do this, something will have to give. They’ll have to pay us more for retrans,” said a rep for one broadcaster.

The AutoHop battle is a new twist on carriage deals that have grown testier in recent months due to escalating programming costs.

Dish is standing by AutoHop. “Viewers have been skipping commercials in the privacy of their own homes for generations,” said VP of programming David Shull. “Gannett is stifling innovation and crushing customer choice and control. That’s insulting to our subscribers, and we won’t stand for it,” he said in a statement Friday as the battle went public.

The two sides didn’t disclose terms of the new deal, saying only they’ve reached a long-term agreement for the satcaster’s retransmission of Gannett’s stations.

Dish had said Gannett wanted a 300% rate increase and that it had offered “market rates” with a 200%-plus increase from current levels. Gannett, which has affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC, had said it was looking for a “fair, market-rate deal.”

A blackout would have hit Dish customers in 19 cities including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Denver, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Phoenix and Sacramento. Dish said it carries nearly 1,700 local channels across the country.

It’s not the first time AutoHop figured into a fracas between Dish and a station group. Hoak Media, a Dallas-based owner of 14 TV stations, saw its signals off the satcaster for a full week, and the ad-skipping DVR figured into the rhetoric on both sides.

That said, there’s a school of thought that AutoHop is merely a sideshow in disputes that boil down to little more than how much money is going to change hands. Dish’s combatants in previous negotiations have been cited in other reports suggesting that Dish uses retrans disputes as a means for promoting AutoHop even though the technology isn’t really the bone of contention.

Meanwhile, a federal judge is expected to issue a ruling soon on whether to grant Fox’s request for an injunction to stop AutoHop. Last month, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee heard arguments from both sides. Should she rule in Dish’s favor, the networks fear it could lead other satellite and cable providers to offer similar features that undermine the ad-supported business model. Dish’s position is that viewers are the ones deciding whether to use the ad-skipping feature.

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