At 6 p.m. on a February night, Esther and Mark Wood, of Idaho Falls, were watching “Jeopardy! All-star Games,” a tournament including past winners of the NBC quiz show.
“We’d been waiting for that,” said Esther Wood, 82. “Watching every day.”
At about 6:15 p.m. the screen went black.
“We couldn’t figure out what went wrong,” Wood said. “We didn’t know if the weather was affecting it somewhere or if it was a difficulty with the (station) management.”
The station hasn’t come back on since.
For about seven weeks, DirecTV subscribers haven’t had access to the local NBC affiliate, KPVI. It’s not because of the weather, and it’s not a broken connection.
DirecTV, the AT&T-owned satellite television provider, is engaged in a contract dispute with Northwest Broadcasting, the Lansing, Mich.-based broadcasting company that owns KPVI and stations in eight other markets throughout the U.S.
The dispute began to affect customers in Pocatello and greater Idaho Falls on Feb. 22 when AT&T took Northwest Broadcasting’s stations off DirecTV. Since then, DirecTV customers in the area have not had access to the local NBC station.
The dispute stems from language in the two companies’ contract regarding Northwest Broadcasting’s future acquisitions, according to Northwest Broadcasting’s owner Brian Brady, who spoke with the Post Register by phone.
The same language has been in the contract for a decade, Brady said. When the companies began new contract negotiations, in November 2017, AT&T took issue with it.
Brady wants the freedom to acquire new stations that can operate under his contract with AT&T. But AT&T, the multinational conglomerate that ranked ninth on Fortune 500’s 2018 rankings of America’s largest companies, says Northwest Broadcasting’s fees are too high.
“We’ve added 14 stations to the current contract over the last 10 years,” Brady said. “DirecTV hasn’t so much as asked a question about it. We have had the language in our contract for over 10 years. Now they’re trying to spin this like this is untoward.”
Brady said he gave AT&T dozens of opportunities to extend negotiations and keep his stations on DirecTV, so the dispute wouldn’t affect customers, but AT&T finally took Northwest Broadcasting stations off DirecTV in February.
Each company is pointing the finger at the other.
“They want to try to prohibit our growth, is what it sure feels like,” Brady said. “This isn’t over a rate issue — usually these things are over money. This is about AT&T using their scale to diminish competitiveness.”
AT&T’s stance is that Northwest Broadcasting is a “serial blackout artist, notorious for cutting off service to its most loyal viewers, regardless of their provider,” according to a statement from an AT&T spokesperson, which also appears on tvpromise.att.com, a website that tells DirecTV customers which stations are unavailable on the service and why.
Northwest Broadcasting has had disputes with other large television providers in the past. A similar dispute between Northwest Broadcasting and Charter Communications resulted in Charter customers missing the 2018 Super Bowl, according to Broadcasting & Cable, a television trade publication.
“(KPVI’s) owner, Northwest Broadcasting, charges more than nearly every other station owner to allow anyone to keep its stations like KPVI,” reads AT&T’s statement. “But Northwest wants to be able to collect those same high fees on behalf of other stations it may own in the future.”
While the two companies fight it out, eastern Idaho DirecTV subscribers are without their local NBC station, which runs programs such as KPVI News, NBC’s “Today” show, “The Dr. Oz Show,” “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune” and various sitcoms.
There is a temporary fix for DirecTV customers who haven’t already switched to DISH or CableOne.
Esther Wood said she hadn’t been getting KPVI for about seven weeks — until her fourth phone call with DirecTV/AT&T’s customer service line produced a solution.
The company sent her an antenna that can receive standard local broadcast channels, such as NBC.
Now, instead of seeing a message that reads “This channel is currently unavailable. We regret any inconvenience,” the Woods can watch KPVI when they enter “six-dash-one” on their remote.
“We’ll be happy now, I guess,” Esther Wood said. “They aren’t advertising anything about the solution to get the antenna. I didn’t have any idea at all until I called.”
Wood, a three-year DirecTV customer, said she hasn’t had any problems with the service until now.
“This is really strange,” she said. “I would think there’s a lot of people canceling.”
Both AT&T and Northwest Broadcasting said they are working toward a solution, although there’s no telling when that will happen.
“We continue to try to work through this thing,” Brady said. “We have given (AT&T) an open-ended extension. I couldn’t tell you how long it’s going to last.”