NORTH FORT MYERS, FLA. — Like other cable TV service providers serving this Southwest Florida municipality of some 52,000, DirecTV offers such local channels as NBC affiliate WBBH-20, CBS affiliate WINK-11 and ABC affiliate WZVN-7.
The FOX affiliate and local PBS member station are there, too.
One station isn’t present, however. It is a facility that’s been on and off DirecTV over the years. Today, it’s been absent from the DBS provider for more than six months — and nary a word has been said about it.
The station that’s conspicuously absent from the local DirecTV channel lineup in the Fort Myers-Naples DMA is WXCW-46, the market’s CW affiliate.
It is locally owned by Sun Broadcasting, and this Naples-licensed station is operated via a shared services agreement with a related entity, Fort Myers Broadcasting Co.
And, it hasn’t been among the local DirecTV lineup since late January.
The reason is, unsurprisingly, the lack of a retransmission fee agreement.
DirecTV is owned by AT&T. In comments made exclusively to RBR+TVBR, a California-based spokesperson said, “We had hoped to retain WXCW for our local Fort Myers and Naples customers, but doing so requires legal permission from its owner, Sun Broadcasting. We were unfortunately unable to come to terms to renew our retransmission consent agreement about six months ago, and mutually agreed to end talks at the end of January and part amicably.”
Meanwhile, WXCW station management has been reluctant to talk to the media. One company executive is prepared to share direct e-mail communications between Sun and DirecTV. However, DirecTV objected to sharing this information.
In an e-mail disclosed by WXCW, AT&T’s senior counsel notes, “AT&T takes confidentiality obligations seriously. It is our view that our communications are confidential. AT&T expressly reserves all of its rights.”
It’s just the latest example of just how ugly negotiations can get between major pay TV distributors and free over-the-air broadcast stations.
That said, the leverage one would expect to see from Nexstar Media Group has failed to bring that company a new retransmission deal with DirecTV, as RBR+TVBR reported July 8.
The loss of WXCW for DirecTV subscribers in Charlotte, Lee and Collier Counties is the second time in three years the CW affiliate has been unavailable to those with the DBS provider due to a lack of a retransmission deal.
As New Year’s Eve 2016 approached, WXCW took to social media with pictures of Dr. Phil McGraw warning of a possible removal of the station from DirecTV lineups.
With hours remaining before Jan. 1, 2017, the station said in a statement to viewers, “Unfortunately, we have reached an impasse and DirecTV has refused to enter into a new carriage agreement on terms consistent with those of other pay TV companies. DirecTV’s business is to license sports, entertainment and news programs in order to resell these channels as a pay TV bundle. WXCW will always remain free over-the-air directly via an antenna throughout Southwest Florida. However, WXCW does not allow any other business to capture its signal and resell its TV shows without an appropriate fee.”
Then came New Year’s Day. DirecTV lost the capacity to provide WXCW, which was pulled, by law, from its Fort Myers-Naples lineup.
At the time, DirecTV said, “We want to get WXCW back into all of our Fort Myers and Naples customers’ local lineups, but by law its owner, Sun Broadcasting, has exclusive control over that. We share our customers’ frustration, as Sun is blocking WXCW until they receive a substantial fee increase. The fact is viewers now watch all of the same shows on WXCW for free over the air on Channel 46 and, often, at cwtv.com or using the CW app. We continue to ask Sun to allow our customers to watch while we work this matter out privately. We need their permission to bring WXCW back. Sun has disconnected its most loyal viewers here in Fort Myers and Naples before, while we strive to deliver the content our customers want at a value that makes sense to them.”
Sun countered, “The carriage agreement between DirecTV and WXCW TV has expired. Despite repeated attempts, DirecTV declined WXCW’s offer to extend carriage negotiations and prevent a viewer blackout. WXCW has never reached an impasse with another major pay TV provider and has existing long-term agreements with DISH, Comcast and CenturyLink. WXCW is one of the most popular TV channels on DirecTV and we are hopeful DirecTV will make an offer consistent with other pay TV companies, to restore WXCW’s signal to their line-up. However, considering the course of our negotiations we can provide no assurance that WXCW will ever be restored to DirecTV. Viewers may call other providers and switch or install antennas to view WXCW.”
A deal was eventually reached. But, this two-year agreement apparently ended in January with no replacement agreed to.
It’s not the only long-term absence in the market on a DBS provider for Fort Myers Broadcasting Co. to deal with.
A WINK THAT HASN’T NODDED
As RBR+TVBR first reported in June, WINK-11 has been absent from the DISH Network lineup since mid-January.
A dispute between WINK’s owner and DISH began January 8. On the station’s website, Fort Myers Broadcasting presented its version of the facts.
“We offered DISH a short-term extension of our current agreement so we could continue to negotiate with DISH without affecting WINK-TV viewers,” the company said. “DISH indicated that it was willing to accept the extension, so we were surprised that DISH chose to take this course of action.”
Joe Schwartzel, who serves as WINK GM, provided no material update on the retransmission fee impasse when speaking with RBR+TVBR on June 13. “We are continuing to have conversations with DISH,” he said. But, Schwartzel added that it remains unknown if and when a resolution could come.
None has emerged since, making it seven months without CBS programming for DISH subscribers in Southwest Florida.
Asked if DISH’s negotiations are protracted because Fort Myers Broadcasting is a locally based owner not active in other markets, Schwartzel would not definitely say yes or no. However, he noted that some could surmise that “we’re a little easier to pick on” compared to a large publicly traded owner of stations across multiple markets.
And, Schwartzel noted, the deal provided to DISH is the same agreement that Comcast and DirecTV said yes to.
Curiously, while DirecTV has a deal with WINK-11, it couldn’t reach one for WXCW.
The AT&T spokesperson told RBR+TVBR that a new agreement between DirecTV and Fort Myers Broadcasting Co. and WINK-11 was entered into at about the same time WXCW went dark. With local news provided to WXCW via WINK, solutions to the loss of the CW include over-the-air reception or use of The CW mobile app; curiously these suggestions could reinforce consumer doubts that a DBS provider is even needed.
For Schwartzel, disagreements with DISH is nothing new, either. In January 2016, a contract dispute resulted in DISH blacking out WINK-TV until just before that year’s Super Bowl telecast. “They went with the agreement put in front of them,” he recalled.
This year, DISH refused to even agree to that, and hasn’t wavered since.
A DISH spokesperson did not respond to RBR+TVBR‘s request for comment.
LOCALLY OWNED, BUT ALLOWABLE?
While Joe Schwartzel is the GM for WINK-11 and Fort Myers Broadcasting Co., his son Jim Schwartzel runs Sun Broadcasting and WXCW.
That said, FMBC has a shared services agreement with Sun.
This didn’t sit well with Naples-based Beasley Media Group and another owner of radio stations in Southwest Florida, Renda Broadcasting, some 3 1/2 years ago. In January 2016, the two companies joined together in filing a Petition to Deny Sun’s purchase of what is now WFFY-FM 98.5 in San Carlos Park, Fla., from Educational Media Foundation.
It was their contention that Sun’s purchase of the former WLVO did not comply with FCC ownership limits, given FMBC’s shared service agreement.
In addition to WXCW, Sun owns Fox Sports Radio simulcast WFSX-AM 1240 and WNOG-AM 1270; FOX News-branded Talker WFSX-FM 92.5; Active Rock WXNX-FM 93.7; and Classic Rock WARO-FM 94.5.
Fort Myers Broadcasting Co.’s properties, aside from WINK-11, are AC WINK-FM 96.9; Latin Pop WTLQ-FM 97.7; and Tropical “Maxima,” airing on two FM translators and based at WAXA-AM 1200.
In its defense, the elder Schwartzel told the FCC that Sun rents space in the FMBC broadcast center and purchases IT, engineering, master control and administrative services. While some employees are shared between the two companies, they are paid separately.
This is within FCC rules, and the transaction was granted.
Meanwhile, Sun’s Jim Schwartzel is also the President of lifestyle glossy publication Gulfshore Life. The title was acquired by Sun in late 2018. This was reported by the Gannett-owned News-Press of Fort Myers, which now enjoys a daily newspaper monopoly in Lee and Collier Counties as Gannett acquired the Naples Daily News from Scripps in 2016.
This saw the July 31, 2016 shuttering of the Fort Myers presses, with publication of both newspapers exclusive to the Naples facility.
While competitors may argue that the companies tied to Joe and Jim Schwartzel have an unfair advantage, they do compete with Renda, Beasley and iHeartMedia on the radio side. On the TV side, the market’s other players are Waterman Broadcasting, with WBBH and WZVN, and The E.W. Scripps Co., with “FOX4” WFTX-36.
Waterman has had its share of retransmission issues in Fort Myers-Naples, too.
In February 2018, an agreement was reached with its WBBH-2 and DISH that restored the NBC affiliate just in time for the year’s Super Bowl telecast. However, that dispute was short lived.
For Joe and Jim Schwartzel, the battle between the DBS providers could go on for several more months.
They appear to be up for the fight.