Puerto Rico ‘Blackout’ Ends With Liberty-NBCU Deal


MIAMI — As the sun set Sunday in a city known for its neon lights and big casino resorts, worries that the latest retransmission fee fracas would become part of the dialog of the 2019 NAB Show faded into the desert sky.

A new deal between Puerto Rico’s biggest cable TV operator and NBCUniversal has been reached, the MVPD announced via Twitter and Facebook Sunday evening.

Addressing Liberty customers across the U.S. commonwealth, the company said, “We have good news. We hereby inform you that NBC Universal’s channels, including Telemundo, have been restored. Thank you for your patience and confidence during this process.”

As of 8:30am Monday local time, all of the NBCU channels were restored, ending more than three days of signal squelching from the MVPD.

As RBR+TVBR reported April 4, the retransmission fee dispute was unexpected — and the result of Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico’s board rejecting a deal that was signed off by its executives. “The deal was signed off, and extended,” a source close to the matter said. “Then, Liberty came back and said the board rejected the deal they had signed off. We thought we had a done deal here. Now, we don’t.”

The retransmission fee dispute also appeared to be the result of actions taken by Liberty. Their current deal with NBCUniversal was not supposed to expire until the end of 2019. However, the source explained, Liberty exercised its right at the end of the first quarter (March 31) to an early termination of the agreement.

It did so citing “economic hardship,” a common refrain among those in Puerto Rico’s long-suffering business community — heard even before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, resulting in a mass exodus of residents to Florida and other U.S. states.

Subscribers were asked to say no to a rise in retransmission fees Telemundo sought. In Spanish, Liberty noted that Telemundo and NBC seek to double the cost for its channels to its Puerto Rican viewers. “Liberty is fighting for you,” it said, noting that it is refusing to submit to increases that punish Puerto Ricans.

Now, it seems, an accord to both parties’ liking was possible after 72 hours of transmission silence.

With no deal in place, subscribers as of 6pm April 4 were prevented from viewing Telemundo’s big O&O in San Juan, WKAQ-2, which on an HD multicast channel offers NBC programming to Puerto Rico via a simulcast of WNBC-4 in New York, the station long available via satellite for network coverage. Additionally, 13 cable networks were blocked:  locally programmed Punto2, Universo, USA, MSNBC, NBC Sports Network, Bravo, E!, SYFY, CNBC, Oxygen, Golf ChannelCNBC World News and Universal Kids.

In a joint statement released late Sunday, Liberty Puerto Rico and NBCUniversal said that throughout the negotiations, “the Puerto Rican consumer was at the heart of the discussions. Ultimately, the two companies were able to reach a reasonable commercial agreement that will return NBC’s high-quality content to Liberty’s customers.”

Stephane David, VP and Chief Programming Officer of Liberty Latin America, said the agreement “really puts the customer first and brings back channels that they love. We are proud of our longstanding partnership with NBCUniversal and look forward to continuing to provide our customers with high-quality content from all of our partners.”

Matt Schnaars, SVP of NBCUniversal Content Distribution, added, “Telemundo in particular has a special bond with the people of Puerto Rico and we are pleased our quality entertainment, news and sports will be available to Liberty subscribers.”

Meanwhile, Liberty is starting to calculate subscriber credits for the 72-plus hours the channels were gone, with those credits applied to May statements. It also reiterated that it will not make any rate hikes in 2019.

With the NBCU channels gone, Showtime was offered free of charge, while a 40% discount was extended to subscribers who used Liberty’s Video on Demand and Pay-per-view options.

For one subscriber, that wasn’t satisfactory. “I pay $100 per month but to watch Telemundo I have to put on the antenna that I used after Hurricane Maria,” Yomaira Lopez wrote on Liberty’s Facebook page. “What a lack of respect.”

Antonio Torres-Gonzalez added, “I’m going to change … one less subscriber.” Ten likes were given by other Facebook users to the post.