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Tribune Stations Removed From Dish Satellite Systems in Latest Distribution Battle

Dish Network and Tribune Broadcasting are at loggerheads in discussions to keep programming from 42 local stations owned by the Chicago programming on the air. Dish said Sunday evening that Tribune content was no longer being offered on its satellite systems.

At issue, the two companies said, were disagreements over the terms of payment for programming from Tribune’s stations, as well as the value of Tribune’s WGN America cable network. A distribution contract between the two companies expired at 7 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.

“We want to reach an agreement, just as we have with every one of our other cable, satellite and telco distributors, but Dish refuses to reach an agreement based on fair-market value,” said Gary Weitman, Tribune Media’s senior vice president for corporate relations, in a prepared statement.  “We want to keep servicing our local communities and we have repeatedly offered Dish a lengthy extension to continue negotiations—unfortunately, Dish rejected these offers.”

“Tribune is demanding an unreasonable rate increase for channels that are available for free over the air,” said Warren Schlichting,  executive vice president of programming for Dish, in a statement. “Actions like Tribune’s are what drive price increases and feed customer frustration for our industry.” The company said it would offer free over-the-air antennae to Dish customers who were affected and still wanted to gain access to offerings from Tribune’s stations. Dish also said Tribune was trying to “force bundle” carriage of its WGN America cable network with that for its broadcast stations.

Dish’s satellite-based system has around 13.8 million pay-TV subscribers. The company said customers in 34 states and the District of Columbia were affected by the disagreement.

The flare-up is the latest conflagration between a programmer and one of its distributors, a signal of the growing reliance media companies have on the fees they get from such companies. The decision to pull programming is not without risk: Consumers are annoyed when they can’t watch programming for which they pay subscriber fees, and regulators also take a dim view of the tactics. At the same time, media companies have more need of the revenue they can wring from distribution agreements. Advertising, another source of fuel, has become less reliable as consumers migrate from traditional TV screens to mobile devices and streaming video,.

Dish said it had been willing to enter into a short-term extension of its distribution agreement with Tribune, but was rebuffed.  The satellite distributor said it had a lackluster opinion of WGN America, a cable network whose profile Tribune has been trying to raise by introducing higher-quality programs. Dish said its research had found viewership levels for the network had dropped, while many of the programs WGN America offered were available on other networks Dish carries.

Dish has in recent months experienced breakdowns in talks it has held with 21st Century Fox and Time Warner’s Turner. In 2014, Dish and Turner entered into a standoff that resulted in Cartoon Network and CNN going off the air for a period of time. Last year, a Dish disagreement with Fox led to Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network being taken off the air for about three weeks.

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