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Tribune-DirecTV fight leaves consumers in the dark

April 02, 2012|Los Angeles Times

Consumers are caught in the middle of a fight between media giants.

This time, it's Tribune Co. and satellite broadcaster DirecTV that are squabbling. The debate is over fees that Tribune, the parent of the Los Angeles Times, wants DirecTV to pay to carry its local television stations, including KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles.

Early Sunday, Tribune signals around the country started coming off DirecTV's satellite service. The first channels to vanish were WPIX-TV in New York, WPHL-TV in Philadelphia and WDCW-TV in Washington. Then the rest of Tribune's 23 stations, including KTLA, went dark. Also off is Tribune's national cable channel, WGN America.

Battles over fees between programmers and distributors have become commonplace in recent years. Typically, agreements are reached without consumers losing channels. But on occasion, channels are pulled off while the two sides negotiate. In fall 2010, Fox pulled its TV stations off Cablevision Systems, a large East Coast cable operator, for more than two weeks until a new contract was signed.

Over the weekend it looked like a channel blackout would be averted. DirecTV said it was willing to accept Tribune's terms to pay for its local stations, leading to hopes that the signals would stay on the air.

However, Tribune quickly responded that, contrary to what DirecTV had said, the two sides were far apart on an agreement. The talks are now stalled, a Tribune spokesman said. While Tribune was encouraging its viewers to complain to DirecTV, the satellite broadcaster told its subscribers that "there is no need for you to do anything at this time as these matters are typically resolved in a short amount of time."

Bitterness is apparent on both sides. DirecTV said Tribune had reneged on a "handshake deal" and was behaving in "bad faith." DirecTV even suggested that Tribune's own financial woes (the company is trying to emerge from bankruptcy) were leading it to make shortsighted decisions.

Tribune Broadcasting President Nils Larsen countered that "DirecTV is refusing to offer a fair deal." Tribune also accused DirecTV of trying to mislead consumers with regard to the status of talks. "There has been no agreement of any kind, handshake or otherwise," the company said.

On Sunday, DirecTV said it remains "willing and available at a moment's notice to resolve this as soon as possible" and implored Tribune to "do the right thing for their viewers and our customers and put the channels back up while we continue to negotiate."

Tribune President and Chief Executive Eddy Hartenstein, who is also publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is a former CEO of DirecTV.

With more than 19 million subscribers around the country, DirecTV is the nation's second-largest pay-television provider, behind Comcast Corp. By removing its signals from DirecTV, Tribune is risking a hit to its ratings and a potential loss of advertising revenue. Conversely, DirecTV could face a backlash from subscribers angry at being deprived of a channel and being used as pawns in a fight over money.

Until the feud is resolved, subscribers to DirecTV will lose sports programming carried by Tribune's stations. For example, WGN-TV carries the major league Chicago baseball teams Cubs and White Sox. WPIX-TV has broadcast rights to the New York Mets, and WPHL-TV carries the Philadelphia Phillies.

Most of Tribune's stations, including KTLA, are affiliates of the CW Network, whose popular shows include "The Vampire Diaries" and "Gossip Girl." Tribune also owns affiliates of other networks, including Fox and ABC.

As is often the case these days, many consumers voiced their frustrations with both companies on the social networking site Twitter. Some were a little sarcastic.

"Oh no, DirecTV is denying viewers of KTLA who want to watch 'The Healing Power of Juicing,'" cracked one Twitter user making fun of infomercials that run on KTLA during late night and early morning hours.

Others were lamenting the loss of KTLA. "That was the one news station I could actually watch and stand," one consumer tweeted.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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