Station group warns of possible blackouts as March 31 deadline nears

After a quiet stretch for retrans battles in the nation’s major TV markets, sparks are flying between Tribune Broadcasting and satcaster DirecTV.

Tribune rattled its saber Monday, warning viewers that they may lose access via DirecTV to its stations in 16 markets and the WGN America cabler after the current contract expires Saturday. Although talks between the sides continue, Tribune has started running on-air crawls on its stations and promos warning of the possible blackout to come.According to Tribune, negotiations on a new retrans pact have been stymied because the satcaster “is refusing to offer a fair deal.” The dispute, of course, boils down to the definition of “fair.”

In a statement, DirecTV said: “We believe Tribune’s local news and other programming is important to the public and have no problem compensating Tribune fairly. We have absolutely no intention of denying anyone access to these stations, unless Tribune specifically demands it.”

Tribune Broadcasting prexy Nils Larsen asserted that DirecTV has “never” paid any retrans fees to Tribune stations.

In the past few years, broadcasters have aggressively forced the hand of cable, satellite and telco operators to fork over sizable subscriber fees in exchange for the right to retransmit local station signals.

Most of Tribune’s stations are affiliated with the CW network, which does not have nearly as much pull as the Big Four networks in retrans negotiations. But Tribune also owns Fox affils in seven markets, including Seattle, Indianapolis and San Diego, as well as the ABC affil in New Orleans.

DirecTV has made an offer to Tribune that includes cash for its stations and WGN America cabler, which in recent years Tribune has beefed up to be a comedy-centric entertainment outlet. Tribune is said to be seeking healthier fee increases in the neighborhood of the 40 cents to 50 cents or more per subscriber per month commanded by other large station groups, with escalators over time in exchange for a long-term (think five years or more) deal.

Tribune is emphasizing the potential for DirecTV viewers in major markets to lose access to local sports coverage, including Cubs and White Sox baseball games in Tribune’s home base of Chicago via WGN, Mets games in New York via WPIX and Phillies games in Philadelphia via WPHL.

As broadcasters often do in these battles, Tribune is urging viewers to use an HD antenna to receive the stations over the air. The on-air messaging about the fight directs viewers to the TellDirecTV.com website to tout its position.

“We want to make sure that subscribers remember that if DirecTV drops the programming provided by our stations, subscribers will still have options,” Larsen said. “Subscribers don’t have to miss their regular news or favorite shows. Our broadcast stations are available for free in HD with a TV antenna or through an alternative pay TV provider.”

As disputes between broadcasters and cable/satellite operators began to increase in 2009 and 2010, the FCC took steps to review the 20-year law mandating that operators receive consent from local stations to retransmit signals.

After collecting reams of public comment on the subject, much lobbying and jockeying by lobbying orgs for both sides, the FCC ultimately decided last year it didn’t have much authority to change the law, as a coalition of cable, satellite and telco operators sought.

The operators have sought to put curbs on broadcasters’ ability to pull their stations from cable/satellite platforms in the case of a contract dispute. But the FCC under chairman Julius Genachowski has been wary of taking on a referee role in private business negotiations.

Tribune’s roster of 23 stations covers numerous major markets, including KTLA Los Angeles, KDAF Dallas, WDCW Washington, D.C., and KPLR St. Louis.

The Tribune-DirecTV dispute might make for a touchy moment or two for Tribune Co. CEO Eddy Hartenstein, who was the founding CEO of DirecTV from 1990 through 2003.

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