A New DirecTV Retrans Impasse Blanks Cowles Stations

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On Sunday evening, National Football League fans in three Northwestern TV markets, like many across the U.S., may wish to settle in to the armchair, grab a beer, and enjoy the Pittsburgh Steelers as they visit Foxboro, Mass., to take on the New England Patriots.


Unfortunately, customers of DirecTV in these DMAs won’t be able to. That’s thanks to the latest retransmission consent negotiation gone bad, resulting in a “blackout” of the NBC affiliates serving Billings, Mont.; and both Spokane and Yakima, Wash.

Three other stations, all dual ABC and FOX affiliates, are also impacted.

On Wednesday evening, Cowles-owned KULR-8 in Billings, Mont., disappeared from DirecTV lineups in cities where the station and its full-time satellite partner KYUS-3 in Miles City, Mont., can be viewed. So did Cowles’ KHQ-6 in Spokane and KNDO-23 in Yakima, Wash.

Additionally, ABC/FOX dual affiliates KWYB-18/28 in Butte and Bozeman, Mont., KTMF-23/42 in Missoula and Kalispell, Mont. and KFBB-5 in Great Falls, Mont. are dark on DirecTV in these respective cities.

In a statement, Cowles Montana Media cited “an ongoing retransmission consent dispute” resulting in the decision to discontinue DirecTV carriage of its stations.

The action comes after Cowles’ retransmission consent agreement expired June 30, and the company and AT&T-owned DirecTV could not come to a new deal following at least one extension.

“We continue to effort good faith negotiations,” Cowles said. “To date, we have completed deals with every other satellite and cable TV provider with which we do business.”

In Billings, this includes Charter Communications’ Spectrum services, and DISH Network.

“We highly regret the inconvenience this will cause to DIRECTV subscribers who want to continue watching local news, weather and sports on this station, along with our popular entertainment programming, including NFL football,” Cowles said.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football debuts Sunday with the Steelers-Patriots game, so the timing of the “blackout” couldn’t come at a worse time for fans who enjoy DirecTV for its “NFL Sunday Ticket” package and then wish to flip to the local NBC station for the nightcap.

On the KULR website, questions regarding retransmission consent vs. must-carry election are offered. A must-carry election would require DirecTV — and all local TV services — to bring KULR to audiences for a three-year period. Why did Cowles decide not to elect must-carry for its stations?

“The stations chose not to elect must-carry in order to have the right to negotiate with cable and satellite companies to receive certain things, such as compensation and channel position, which it would not receive by making a must-carry election,” Cowles said.

KULR occupies Cable Channel 9 on Spectrum systems in Billings.

“As a result of the station’s retransmission consent election, the relationship between the stations and DirecTV is essentially the same as the typical commercial relationship that exists between any wholesaler attempting to sell its product to a retailer so that the retailer can then sell the product to consumers in its market,” Cowles continued.

Further, Cowles said “the inability to reach agreement with DirecTV is about much more than just money.”

And, it make it clear to viewers that DirecTV did not “pull its signal” from its lineup and instead is “refusing to carry” KULR or the Miles City satellite station.

That’s why Cowles insist its fight against DirecTV isn’t about greed.

“It’s about a local business working to bring you the highest quality news, emergency, sports, weather and entertainment programming that we can,” it said. “Given that we spend millions of dollars each year to buy and produce high-quality programming, it is only right and fair that DirecTV compensate us fairly for our costs, especially since they are re-selling our content to their subscribers. In addition, our disagreement with DirecTV is related to other material matters besides the amount our stations are paid.”

Won’t this cost get passed on to the consumer?

In response to this hypothetical viewer question, Cowles responds, “That is a question for DIRECTV to answer. They may pass these costs on to their subscribers or they could choose just to reduce the profits they make. Alternatively, they could negotiate to reduce the fees they pay for programming which is far less popular than the programming provided by the station.”

In a statement sent to Cord Cutters News, AT&T said it was “disappointed” to see Cowles put its customers into the middle of its negotiations “by choosing to remove its local stations from their lineups.”

AT&T added that DirecTV had hoped to avoid any unnecessary interruption and asked Cowles to keep the stations available while it continued to negotiate.

“Cowles Montana Media has instead refused,” AT&T claims.

In a familiar refrain, it then accused the broadcast TV station owner of demanding “a substantial fee increase just to allow our customers to keep its stations the same as before.”

AT&T believes it “remains on the side of customer choice and value. Our goal is always to deliver the content our customers want at a value that makes sense to them. Local viewers can watch the same stations over the air and often online at the station websites, as well as their national broadcast network websites and mobile apps. Customers are sending a clear message that they don’t want to keep paying more for channels they no longer care as much about or that offer their shows for free over the air and often online. They deserve more choice over which channels they want to pay for, and the freedom to decide where, when and on what device they can watch their favorite programs. We’ve always fought hard on our customers’ behalf and why we’re willing to fight for them again here.”

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