WGN-TV owner Nexstar in dispute with Comcast

A screenshot of WGN-TV’s website from Monday, warning viewers Comcast would “take their channel away”.

Nation’s largest station group is up against the nation’s largest cable operator in retrans battle

Just a week after local DirecTV subscribers dodged a bullet when the satellite TV provider made a last-minute deal with Fox to keep the network and its related channels on the service in midst of the FIFA World Cup and a Packers-Bears game, Chicago viewers now have another retransmission consent dispute to worry about. 

This time it’s Nexstar, the owner of WGN-TV and the area’s largest cable/satellite operator, Comcast (Xfinity) as commercials hit the airwaves over the weekend on the Chicago-based independent  and other Nexstar stations nationwide. Unlike the low-key approach Fox took in warning viewers about losing their channels on DirecTV, Nexstar is coming out with all guns blazing, putting a large red message on the top of their station websites and launching web pages Sunday filled with a lot of cut-and-paste pro-Nexstar propaganda. From WGN-TV:  

“WGN TV has a contract with Comcast that allows them to deliver our programming to you. If a new agreement is not reached, Comcast might remove WGN TV from your schedule. WGN TV has presented a proposal for fair value, based on the importance and value our programming brings our viewers.  Despite our tireless efforts, Comcast has refused our fair offer and is making negotiations very difficult. Our offer is fair. And now they may hold you the subscriber hostage. It’s not right.” 

In reality, only the local station can pull their signal from a cable or satellite system. Also on the website, it refers to programming their viewers “pay for”, even though they can easily access their signal through an over-the-air antenna for free. WGN-TV is one of the most-watched stations in Chicago, led by their top-rated morning newscasts.

The template for Nexstar’s CW stations, who also owns the network. This is from KIAH Houston.

Nexstar is the company’s largest station group with more than 150 stations nationwide with 90 of them in Comcast markets, such as Chicago. Other markets affected include Philadelphia; San Francisco; Washington D.C.; Houston; Tampa-St. Petersburg; Denver; Sacramento; Indianapolis; and Champaign, Ill. In addition, Nexstar’s NewsNation could also go dark on Comcast. 

And unlike the brief Fox-DirecTV spat, there was no deadline established on when to reach a deal, so Nexstar’s channels could be pulled anytime though if it were to happen, it proabably wouldn’t be until the end of this month.  

Other factors are complicating this mess. Nexstar is currently embroiled in a dispute with Comcast over New York’s WPIX as the station is owned by Mission Broadcasting – who happens to be a shell company of Nexstar, meaning the Irving, Tex.-based company basically runs the day-to-day operations of Mission, making them basically a de facto owner. WPIX isn’t covered in its current retrans deal with Comcast as Nexstar is suing it and Charter for unpaid fees. Both Comcast and Charter petitioned the FCC to say Nexstar is basically the de facto owner of WPIX and if the agency rules in favor of the two cable operators, it would mean Nexstar would violate the 39 percent cap Congress and the FCC put in place and would be forced to sell some stations. Filed last year, the FCC has yet to act on the petition. On December 3, WPIX disappeared from Comcast’s systems. 

Also complicating matters is Comcast’s ownership of NBC and Telemundo, whose owned-stations compete with Nexstar in several large media markets, including Chicago. 

Recently, Comcast announced they would raise prices with the start of the new year, basically due to increasing program costs and inflation. Earlier this fall, Nexstar finalized its 75 percent purchase of The CW giving their CW-affiliated stations more leverage over cable and satellite providers as they are now essentially network owned-and-operated stations.  

Outside of the WPIX drama, station disputes with Comcast are actually rare. In the 22 years this writer was a subscriber with Comcast and predecessors AT&T Broadband and TCI – roughly between 1994 and 2017, there wasn’t a single retransmission dispute resulting in a channel being pulled. But all good things must come to an end as the television business has changed, and not for the better. More and more viewers are cutting the cord due to increasing cable bills and the growing popularity of streaming, leading to less retrans revenue for broadcasters. So when contracts come up for renewal, they’ll demand more money, raising your bill even more. It’s an never-ending cycle that’ll continue until Congress address this issue once and for all, but I wouldn’t hold my breath as the childish back and forth and the lies to consumers continue between multi-million dollar corporations who control our TV viewing. 


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