Channel Blackouts: Service Provider & Broadcaster Disputes

And here you thought those never-ending commercials paid for everything…

One advantage of free Over-The-Air (OTA) television is that the commercials do pay for everything. However, if you are receiving your local channels from a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPDs) such as satellite or cable, there are extra fees involved. MVPDs not only have to pay to carry programming like ESPN, CNN, HGTV, etc., they also pay to carry most of the local TV stations. The FCC has developed regulations, known as “must-carry” rules, that give the local broadcasters a choice between requiring the MVPD to broadcast their programming or prevent the MVPD from carrying their programming unless the MVPD pays a negotiated retransmission fee. If the broadcaster choses the retransmission option, the MVPD is not required to carry their programming. Not the best of options for the MVPD – be required to carry programming they may not want, or pay for programming they do want, and, quite frankly, need. Customers expect to see the major networks, so the MVPD has to carry them if they expect to keep their subscribers.

As you can imagine, the main broadcasting networks saw an opportunity to make more money, so they typically chose retransmission consent. The FCC Must-Carry rules require the broadcaster to update their decision every three years. This means that the MVPDs have to renegotiate the retransmission consent fees with the broadcasters every three years, and every three years those fees increase. The MVPDs don’t have much of a choice in the matter, so they try to negotiate those fee increases to be as low as possible. When they can’t come to agreement on the fees, the MVPD does have the option of dropping the channel altogether, or to blackout the channel. While this does normally force both parties to negotiate harder, the loser is the customer who can no longer see the programming on the MVPD providers’ service while negotiations are ongoing, and who ends up with a higher bill from their MVPD provider, who is trying to cover their increased programming costs.

What a lot of the MVPD customers don’t realize is that the OTA signals are just that – over the air. That means you can watch the channels for free by using an antenna, and not have to worry about blackouts. Something else many of the MVPD customers don’t know is that there is a lot more programming available from each broadcaster on an antenna that is typically not available on their cable or satellite service. The FCC must-carry rules only require the MVPDs to carry the primary signal from the broadcasters. However, now that the broadcasters have converted to digital, many of them broadcast both their primary programming as well as sub-channels. The sub-channels are indicated by the decimal point after the primary channel. For instance, if your local NBC affiliate is on channel 8, they will have the primary programming on channel 8.1, and also have sub-channels at 8.2, 8.3, etc. There are a lot of programming choices available on these sub-channels, including old TV programs, game shows, movies, local weather, and even local high school sports. In most instances, none of these sub-channels are carried by the MVPD in your area. With the new broadcasting standard called NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) being rolled out around the country, broadcasters will have even more special programming available over the air that will not be carried by the MVPDs.

One other advantage to using an antenna to watch your local channels is improved picture quality. All MVPDs, including streaming services, have to reprocess the over the air signals to carry them on their networks. Once they get to their set top box that connects to your TV, the signals are reprocessed again so that they can be displayed properly. Each time it is reprocessed, some of the quality is lost. For the highest quality signals, and no chance of blackouts, an OTA antenna is the best way to go!