Super Bowl blackout?

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January 25, 2012, 7:58 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Waltham, Mass.) For sports-bar owners along this town’s bustling Moody Street and across Greater Boston and southern New Hampshire, it looms as a business nightmare: The threat that come Super Bowl Sunday, their DirecTV service will show nothing but a black screen where the epic New England Patriots-New York Giants matchup should be.

The threat looms because of a contract dispute that’s been raging between DirecTV and Sunbeam Television since January 15, and has led to Sunbeam yanking its WHDH-TV NBC affiliate off the DirecTV feed that reaches 200,000 satellite TV subscribers in Greater Boston. As the two sides have dug in, the threat has grown that come Feb. 5, DirecTV still may have no WHDH – and thus its Boston-area subscribers no Super Bowl. The fight is over what are known as “retransmission consent fees” – basically, how much money does Sunbeam think it deserves to get from DirecTV for making the WHDH signal available on DirecTV in the Boston market.

Michael LaCava, general manager of Shopper’s Café on Moody Street, which his great-grandparents founded, said he’s not worried about losing the big game. “I’m not worried at all,” LaCava said. “There’s too much money involved, especially for our local market, with the super bowl. I’m not worried one bit.’’ But while he thinks the two sides will finally come to some compromise, LaCava acknowledged that he’s spent some time thinking about a plan B. “I thought about maybe having to call Comcast or Verizon for one day of service” to make sure he’d have Super Bowl XLVI on his bar screens.

Brian Clifford, owner of The Wave sports bar on Waverly Oaks Road in Waltham, uses DirecTV for its all-game NFL packages and other college and professional sports packages, but a few years back added a Comcast cable connection specifically to avoid problems like the current Sunbeam-DirecTV impasse and another satellite TV contract beef that kept Versus National Hockey League games off the satellite service. “There had been some instances in the past where either weather or contractual issues with some of the satellite companies, we just felt it was the best thing to do,’’ Clifford said.

“Between the satellite dish and the cable, we know we’re going to be able to show a game. It’s just kind of a safety net.’’ Clifford added that he thinks in his business, it would be devastating to be a sports bar solely dependent on DirecTV that winds up losing the Super Bowl. “It would be huge,’’ Clifford said. “If somebody came in here Super Bowl Sunday and couldn’t see the game, I have a feeling they’d never come back, and thinking about how important word of mouth is in this business, I don’t think it would bode too well for us long term down the road.’’

Jennifer Gillan, a professor of English and media studies at business-oriented Bentley University in Waltham, said retransmission-fee disputes that lead to stations going dark are a function of outdated rules in the pay-TV industry set in a time when there were many fewer channels, and advertising revenue for networks and local affiliate stations was much more abundant. “The rules that are set up were set up for a completely different television industry than the one we have now,’’ Gillan said. “Sunbeam feels like it’s just fighting for its fair share; DirecTV thinks they’re just greedy.’’

Senators John F. Kerry and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, along with all 10 Bay State members of Congress, have sent letters to the CEOs of Sunbeam and DirecTV urging them to resolve their differences quickly, or at least come up with a compromise that ensures the Super Bowl airs on DirecTV even if WHDH goes dark again on satellite after that. They and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen have also urged Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski to get involved in pushing the parties to end this stalemate and for the FCC to adopt a new dispute-resolution process for retransmission that would prevent TV subscribers from losing channels while disputes over fees are settled.

DirecTV, based in El Segundo, Calif., said in a company statement: “DIRECTV continues to stand ready to put all three of Sunbeam's stations back on immediately while we negotiate so that customers in both cities can receive their local programming and so that customers in the Boston area can enjoy the upcoming Super Bowl. We await confirmation from Sunbeam Television that they are on board with Senator Kerry's solution.”

Gillan said she expects because there is so much at stake for both parties – lost ad revenue for Sunbeam and WHDH, the possibility DirecTV customers are so disgusted they dump the service and switch to Comcast Xfinity, Verizon FiOS, RCN or other providers – a deal will happen.

(NECN’s parent company, NBC Universal, is majority owned by Comcast, which has been running radio ads in Boston urging DirecTV customers to switch to Comcast Xfinity to ensure they don’t miss NBC programming including the Super Bowl, one more indication of how high the stakes are.)

“That is always going to be the issue: Is it going to cost us customers?’’ Gillan said. “So my assumption is, because it’s the Super Bowl, at the 11th hour – they’ll agree.”

With videographer David Jacobs

Tags: Super Bowl, Peter Howe, DirecTV, blackout, WHDH, Sunbeam, satellite tv
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