Hundreds Of Local Channels Go Dark For Millions Of Dish Subscribers In Latest TV Blackout Fight

Dish Network subscribers may have a hard time getting their local news and weather today along with some of their favorite network programming. A contract dispute between the satellite TV company and one of the biggest network owners in the country has resulted in one of the biggest TV blackouts to date, with 5 million viewers losing access to nearly 130 channels.

The fight is between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Dish Network. Every three years, broadcast networks, like the channels Sinclair owns, have to re-up retransmission agreements they have with pay-TV companies like dish, if they have them. This time around, the negotiations broke down and consumers are left in the dark.

The original deadline for the two companies to come to an agreement was August 15. However, Sinclair and Dish agreed to a last-minute short-term contract extension in order to get details hammered out and avoid a blackout.

However, that deadline too has now come and gone, and Sinclair pulled the plug on Dish overnight.

In a statement, Warren Schlichting, SVP of programming at Dish, that they and Sinclair had actually come to terms on rates and fees, but that Sinclair is “blacking out 129 local stations in an effort to negotiate a carriage agreement for an unrelated cable channel that it hopes to acquire, but does not own today.” He added, “Sinclair rejected our extension offer and has chosen to use innocent consumers as pawns to gain leverage for the economic benefit of Sinclair, while causing substantial harm and disruption to the lives of consumers.”

Sinclair, of course, entirely blames Dish. Barry Faber, EVP and general counsel for Sinclair, pointed out that Dish has had more blackouts in recent times than any other pay-TV company, and said that Dish is, “simply trying to spin the facts in an apparent effort to make a political statement.”

Faber also called out Dish for sending press statements overnight, adding, “While Sinclair, unlike Dish, is not interested in negotiating this transaction in the press, Sinclair remains willing to negotiate a fair deal with Dish. In addition, we would be open to doing an extension if Dish was not simply asserting take it or leave it positions. In the end, this is simply a commercial business transaction in which the parties unfortunately were not able to agree on terms.”

Sinclair’s dig does have some merits: at this point, Dish subscribers are probably used to their channels vanishing without notice. The satellite company has faced a number of high-profile protracted blackouts over the past year, including three weeks without Fox News in January and a month-long dispute with Turner in 2014 that took CNN and Cartoon Network (among many others) off the air.

This fight is a little different than those, though. Sinclair is not a cable network operator, like Turner or Discovery or Scripps. They are, instead, a media conglomerate that owns and operates a huge number of local broadcast stations. They own over 150 TV stations in over 80 media markets, from small and medium cities to big-time markets like Washington, DC.

That means Dish users in those areas — spread across 36 states plus DC — are now not just going without their cable news, but without their local news. And that’s not good news for anyone.

This is exactly the kind of dispute the FCC recently proposed new rules for, but those rules haven’t been adopted yet. The change to the rules would let the FCC take a broader look at the circumstances around the dispute to determine if the businesses are both negotiating in good faith, as required by law.

Dish argues that Sinclair is not negotiating in good faith, and that Sinclair’s posture is already unlawful. Dish filed a complaint about Sinclair with the FCC (PDF) on August 15, right before the first negotiation deadline expired. When Sinclair stations went dark on Dish last night, Dish filed a new, amended complaint (PDF) against Sinclair, asking the FCC to intervene.

Regardless of the details in every retransmission fight, though, one theme rings true: while companies fight over who gets which money, consumers always lose.

Update: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement around noon today announcing that the FCC is convening an emergency meeting with Dish and Sinclair, in the hopes of resolving the blackout quickly.

“Today, I have directed the Media Bureau to convene an emergency meeting with DISH and Sinclair to get to the bottom of the dispute and bring back local programming to consumers. The parties will have until midnight to file their views,” Wheeler said.

“The public interest is the Commission’s responsibility,” he added. “We will not stand idly by while millions of consumers in 79 markets across the country are being denied access to local programming. The Commission will always act within the scope of its authority if it emerges that improper conduct is preventing a commercial resolution of the dispute.”

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