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More Than 130 Stations May Go Dark In Contract Fights with DirecTV, Dish and U-verse

In a flare-up of retransmission consent wrangling, more than 130 local TV stations could go dark in the next 48 hours on DirecTV, Dish Network and U-verse as contract talks go down to the wire.

Dish Network and Tegna (formerly Gannett Broadcasting) set a 24-hour extension Wednesday morning on a contract that was to have expired at 7 p.m. ET tonight. The sides are in negotiations for a new deal to cover  46 stations in such sizable markets as Phoenix (NBC’s KPNX), Denver (NBC’s KUSA), Washington, D.C. (CBS’ WUSA) and Atlanta (NBC’s WXIA, My Network’s WATL).

DirecTV is facing a midnight ET deadline for a new deal with Media General that would cover 62 stations in more than 40 markets. The big markets affected include San Francisco (My Network affiliate KRON), Tampa, Fl. (NBC affil WFLA) and Nashville (ABC affil WKRN).

AT&T’s U-verse is negotiating against a midnight ET deadline with Tribune Media for carriage of 24 stations serving 19 markets, including Los Angeles (CW’s KTLA), Chicago (CW’s WGN), Dallas (CW’s KDAF) and Houston (KIAH), as well as the cable channel WGN America.

The contract battles over the carriage fees paid for the right to retransmit local stations come at a time of disruption for the players on both sides of the negotiating table. MVPDs are worried about cord cutting and increased competition from subscription streaming services. Broadcasters are dealing with the impact of declining live ratings and heightened competition for local advertising dollars.

“This is about the pressures on these businesses,” said David Bank, analyst with RBC Capital Markets. Station owners of network affiliates are also feeling the squeeze as networks are demanding higher payments in exchange for receiving network programming.

The increase in the number of station blackouts due to retrans battles in markets large and small has prompted the FCC to launch a review of the retransmission consent rule, which mandates private negotiations between station operators and MVPDs.

MVPDs have lobbied for the FCC to take steps to reduce the threat of station blackouts during negotiations. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was vocal on the issue in August when 129 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group went dark on Dish Network. Wheeler ordered FCC staffers to bring the sides together to bring a quick end to the largest station blackout in history, which wound up lasting less than 24 hours.

On Wednesday, each of the three broadcast groups said negotiations were continuing in the hopes of avoiding a shutdown.

“We continue to work hard to reach a deal with DirecTV before our agreement expires today at 11:59p ET,” Media General said in a statement. “Our stations are important assets to the local community. We only want what is fair, so we can continue to serve our viewers.”

DirecTV also said negotiations were continuing. U-verse and DirecTV have become corporate cousins through AT&T’s recent acquisition of the satcaster, although U-verse and DirecTV remain separate entities.

“We are working with Tribune to reach a fair deal for our customers and keep Tribune on the air,” AT&T said in a statement. “Tribune is demanding an increase in rates that we believe is unreasonable and unfair for our customers. We intend to resolve this matter quickly for our customers.”

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