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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, January 01, 2019 12:10 pm

Verizon customers suffer blackout of key channels days before football playoffs

BRIAN FUNG | Washington Post

Verizon FiOS subscribers across the country are suffering a sudden TV blackout of key broadcast channels this week after the company's content negotiations with a major media company, Tegna, fell through.

Affected channels include WUSA, the CBS station in the nation's capital; WVEC, the local ABC station in Norfolk, Virginia; and WGRZ, Buffalo, New York's NBC station.

As many as 1 million FiOS customers across the country have been affected by the outage, according to an estimate by the American Television Alliance, which represents TV distributors and independent programmers.

Ensuring uninterrupted TV programming for customers is vital to TV providers, in part because of high-profile live sports events that occur in January.

For instance, in Washington, D.C., customers may miss out on part of the NFL playoffs and the Jan. 7 SEC College Football Playoff championship game between Georgia and Alabama, which will be broadcast on CBS.

TV viewers can still tune into broadcast signals without their FiOS-provided video subscription, but that typically requires separate equipment such as a digital broadcast antenna or signing up for new streaming video apps and services.

TV viewers were hit by programming blackouts 140 times in 2018, according to ATVA.

The Tegna blackout came hours after Verizon resolved a separate carriage dispute with Disney, which prevented ESPN and ABC from going dark on FiOS customers in numerous markets.

Stephen Kidera, a spokesman for Tegna, said there is no update on when an agreement may be reached. The channels went dark Monday evening after Verizon and Tegna failed to renew their programming contract before a 5 p.m. deadline.

The talks stalled because Tegna had demanded a "significant rate increase" for its channels, Verizon said in a statement on its website.

"The rising cost of programming is the single biggest factor in higher TV bills, and we are standing up to broadcasters like Tegna in order to protect you from rate increases," Verizon said.

Verizon spokeswoman Adria Tomaszewski said Verizon is continuing to negotiate through the blackout.

In a statement issued shortly after the blackout began, Tegna said it was disappointed it could not reach a deal with Verizon despite sealing agreements with hundreds of other distributors.

"We remain hopeful this will get resolved quickly," Tegna said. "However, Verizon customers should know our channels remain available on every other service provider in their community as well as many over-the-top (OTT) providers, who offer instant access when viewers sign up. Our station's high-quality news, sports, weather and entertainment programming is also available for free over-the-air and viewers can continue watching our newscasts live on our stations' apps."

As Verizon subscribers grappled with the programming outage, customers of Comcast in D.C. were having troubles of their own -- with many reporting disruptions of cable internet, phone service and television.