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FCC Hopes To Resolve Largest TV Blackout In U.S. History

Dish Network satellite dishes mounted on an apartment building roof in Palo Alto, Calif. A dispute with Sinclair Broadcasting Group has blocked local stations for over 5 million people.
Paul Sakuma

Can't watch your local news channel? It's not your TV that's broken.

Negotiations between Dish Network and Sinclair Broadcast Group have broken down, resulting in the blackout of 129 local stations across the country. It's the largest TV blackout ever in the U.S.

The standoff prompted Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to order a meeting today with the two companies to resolve the dispute.

"We will not stand idly by while millions of consumers in 79 markets across the country are being denied access to local programming," Wheeler said in a statement.

"The Commission will always act within the scope of its authority if it emerges that improper conduct is preventing a commercial resolution of the dispute."

Many of the blocked channels are local affiliates of major networks CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, meaning more than 5 million viewers lost access to local news, weather reports and sports, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal also reported that Sinclair's intentions to start its own sports channel contributed to the rift in negotiations:

"In a statement, Dish said it had come to terms with Sinclair on fees to carry its TV stations but the broadcaster was holding out to try to leverage distribution for a cable channel it does not yet own. Dish declined to provide details, but Sinclair has expressed interest in starting its own cable network focused on high school and college sports.

" Sinclair rejected our extension offer and has chosen to use innocent consumers as pawns to gain leverage for the economic benefit of Sinclair, while causing substantial harm and disruption to the lives of consumers,' said Warren Schlichting, Dish's senior vice president of programming."

Sinclair responded, accusing Dish of trying to "spin the facts." In a statement, Sinclair Executive Vice President and General Counsel Barry Faber said Sinclair is not interested in negotiating in the press but is still open to reaching a deal.

"Dish, which is reported to have engaged in more recent station blackouts than any other MVPD, is simply trying to spin the facts in an apparent effort to make a political statement. ... We would be open to doing an extension if Dish was not simply asserting 'take it or leave it' positions. In the end, this is simply a commercial business transaction in which the parties unfortunately were not able to agree on terms. Fortunately, the public has ways to receive our stations other than from Dish, including for free over the air."

This lengthy and very public dispute will do no favors for Dish, which lost 79,000 subscribers in 2014, a drop attributed mainly to service interruptions due to disputes over programming with other content providers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 25, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the Federal Communications Commission as the Federal Communications Committee.
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