TV Blackouts Accelerate in the New Year Amid Carriage Disputes

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Tarik Cohen of the Chicago Bears drops a pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFC Wild Card playoff game on Jan. 6, 2019.

Millions of viewers were kept from watching NFL wild card games on their own TV sets.

It's only seven days old, but an advocacy group is already complaining that 2019 is a horrible year for cable TV viewers due to blackouts caused by carriage disputes, and the one between Spectrum and Tribune Media that prevented perhaps millions of viewers from watching NFL wild card games on their own TV sets over the weekend is the most egregious example.

The ongoing feud, in fact, prompted Tribune CEO Peter Kern to write a letter explaining the situation — from his point of view — to customers of Spectrum, the cable TV brand operated by Charter Communications.

"Spectrum's acts since the disruption began have given you a false picture of our negotiation. We are not asking for triple or double the rates for our programming," Kern wrote in a letter made public on Monday.

The CEO tells its viewers that Spectrum is "a huge goliath of a company" that is "using its scale and all of you to try to pressure us to take less than a fair price."

"We have tried to take the high road — we have not called them names or accused them of anything," writes Kern. " But, at our heart, we are an information company and we don't want our viewers misinformed any longer."

The American Television Alliance, which usually supports the cable industry over broadcasters, says Tribune blacked out 6 million Spectrum customers beginning Jan. 2, and it also affected 14 million consumers by yanking its WGN America signal. "The blackout impacted pro football games over the weekend," the group said Monday in a statement.

"The New Year is always a favorite blackout target for broadcasters but this is by far the worst it's ever been," said Trent Duffy, the group's spokesman.

Just seven days into the year, there have already been 26 blackouts in 2019, according to Duffy, while in the entirety of 2018 there were 164 blackouts. In all of 2010, there were only eight blackouts, but that number has headed north ever since.

The group also noted that the Golden Globes viewership took a hit on Sunday due to a blackout in New York because TDS, a small cable operator, is still negotiating a deal with Nexstar Media Group. The old arrangement expired on New Year's Eve.

Another feud the group highlighted on Monday is one involving Lilly Broadcasting and Viya, the only cable TV service in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Their failure to come to terms caused a blackout of both ABC and CBS beginning a couple of days ago.

"Since 2010, millions of Americans have seen dark screens instead of watching their favorite channels due to more than 1,000 broadcaster-initiated blackouts," according to the American Television Alliance. "In the 10-year period between 2008-2018, retransmission fees collected by broadcasters went from about $500 million to $10.1 billion, an increase of 1,920 percent."