The good news for local DirecTV customers came late Thursday. After eight weeks, they could watch WFLA-Ch. 8, one of Tampa Bay’s most popular television stations.
Nexstar Media Group, which runs WFLA along with stations across the country, finally agreed to terms with AT&T, which owns DirecTV, AT&T TV and U-verse.
The channel and others went dark in early July when the two sides could not hammer out how much AT&T would pay Nexstar for running its content. Distributors like DirecTV, Dish Network and cable companies pay broadcasters a monthly fee for letting them transmit their shows.
AT&T and Nexstar did not disclose financial details of the multi-year deal.
The accord could not come soon enough for Cheryl Zambroski, a DirecTV customer who was surprised to find a black screen when she turned on WFLA on July 4. The Tampa resident doesn’t watch a lot of television, but she enjoys the Today Show and news on the local NBC affiliate.
Plus the station is broadcasting the home opener between her beloved Chicago Bears and arch-rival Green Bay Packers on Thursday night.
“It was frustrating because neither side was providing any good information about what was going on,” said Zambroski, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Nursing. “The clock was ticking.”
Zambroski and other DirecTV customers in the Tampa Bay area shouldn’t have to worry about losing WFLA again for at least a few years. But these types of disputes flare up a lot more now than in previous decades.
Viewers often first catch wind of potential blackouts when stations start running scrolls along the screen saying the channel is in jeopardy.
Dish Network has had lengthy battles with Univision and HBO in recent months. AT&T settled a dispute with CBS affiliates earlier this month, which affected WTOG-Ch. 44 in the Tampa Bay area. AT&T was paying CBS about $2 a month for each subscriber and was seeking about $3 a month, according to reports that came out during the negotiations.
The disputes — and resulting channel blackouts — come as the television market is undergoing big changes. Heavyweight distributors including AT&T, Dish Network, Comcast, Verizon Fios and Charter have seen their dominance eroded by subscription services like Hulu, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, Sling TV, FuboTV and PlayStation Vue.
Television watchers have many more options, which has put pressure on distributors like AT&T to keep prices in check. They know they likely will have to pass price increases along to their customers, some of whom will balk and jump ship to a less-expensive subscription service. To stem that trend, distributors are willing to let channels go black as they play hardball with content providers over prices.
When negotiations began, Nexstar reportedly wanted AT&T to pay twice as much per customer each month, which AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson called a non-starter.
“We’re going to have to be resolute,” he said during a conference call last month.
The showdowns between content providers and distributors aren’t expected to ebb anytime soon. Don’t be surprised to wake up one morning to find your favorite channel gone, at least temporarily.