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If a local TV channel disappeared temporarily from your TV provider -- here's the story of why and how

If you subscribe to a TV provider – cable, satellite, or even an online provider – you may have seen local TV stations disappear occasionally from your service. In December, there was an interruption for a time of KGW-TV-8 on DirecTV, and a longer blackout of KOIN-TV-6 and KRCW-TV-32 on Dish Network ended Christmas Eve.

If you were affected, the TV station (which you can get free over the air with a "rabbit ears" antenna) was probably accusing the satellite service of "greed" and "removing your channels".

If it hasn't yet happened to you, it still might – because cable systems have also experienced the same types of interruption, and even the Hulu online TV service had the same problem with the owner of KOIN and KRCW in December as well.

So what's the truth of the matter? To start with, when a channel disappears like this in a dispute with a provider, it almost always is NOT removed by the provider – the owner of the channel has yanked it off, to try to force a higher payment from the provider. How could this situation happen – when local TV channels are broadcast free in perfectly clear – often high-definition – free digital broadcasts?

It did start with a little greed, if the truth be told – but, on the part of some TV stations. TV-providing services started out in the 1950s, and Oregon was one of the first to have them – they were called CATV systems, then, which stood for "community antenna television". They were the original TV cable systems: They put powerful receiving antennas on top of mountains, and brought the signals by cable down to the communities below for residents who were terrain-blocked from receiving the signals directly.

TV stations welcomed this service because it increased their audience, and made their commercials more valuable to advertisers.

In the 1980s, when cable systems began to import distant signals to enhance their service – WTBS in Atlanta was the pioneer "national station" – local stations were concerned that cable systems might find it more profitable to offer out-of-market stations instead of the locals, and so the right to demand "must carry" was conferred by the government on local stations for TV providers. And rightly so – because local stations are the ones which carry local news, local emergency warnings, and local public service announcements.

All well and good. All providers should be carrying their local stations to all local viewers, if nothing else – that was the original purpose of such TV providers.

But, by the turn of the century, some TV station owners got a gleam in their eyes and asked Congress for an enhancement of "must carry" – specifically, the right for them to make the choice: Either to demand "must carry" – OR the right to withhold their signal from TV providers unless they received payment for it. The stations most likely to benefit from negotiating such a payment were the widely-watched network stations, you see.

Congress obliged, and since then, leading local TV stations have been negotiating ever-higher rates of payment for the right for providers to carry their otherwise-free signals. Yes, it was a new income stream for the major stations, and a profitable one. But, alas, they hadn't looked over their shoulders at an even greedier bunch, who wound up profiting even more than the stations: Their own networks.

The major TV networks had been paying their local affiliates to carry their network. The stations expected that to continue – they'd get money from the network, as well as from the local TV provider, AND from the commercials they ran, too! But the networks saw it differently. They stopped paying the stations to carry their network – AND they demanded a hefty cut of the money their stations were getting from the TV providers! When one major market TV station told its big network it was going to choose "must carry" and not get paid for its signal, the network disaffiliated the station, bought another station, and moved its programming there, to keep those TV provider payments coming.

So now, the TV stations have discovered they've made a deal with the devil. If they don't chisel ever higher amounts from the TV providers, they not only would get to keep less of their negotiated compensation from TV providers, they might lose more money than they negotiated – or even lose their network affiliation. You want to know how silly this has gotten? Recently, in some of the cities it serves, the Comcast cable service announced to its subscribers that it might lose the rights to carry NBC stations, and some cable networks owned by NBC, because they'd been unable to negotiate an acceptable deal with NBC. Do you know who owns Comcast? NBC Universal! So, what they were saying is that Comcast might have to drop Comcast channels because Comcast was unable to come to an agreement with Comcast!! That's absurd…but it happened. So that's where we are today. Is there a solution? As a former broadcaster, your editor says "yes". The only way the stations can get out of this Faustian deal with the networks, which results in subscribers of TV provider services (even online ones) having to pay more and more each year just to see their local stations, is to have Congress reverse its earlier action, and give TV stations ONLY the right to demand "must carry" from the TV providers once again – without any compensation. Only if the broadcasters cannot any longer legally ask for compensation for carrying their signals will the networks have to stop asking for a hefty share of that compensation. Will the networks go back, then, to paying the stations to carry their networks? That would be nice, though it could be a stretch – the networks like it the way it is now. But it certainly would undo part of a bad deal for the stations, and offer a path to a more stable local TV industry all around. In the meantime, you can consider asking your TV provider to remove all your local channels from your package, and reduce the cost of your package accordingly. Some may actually do it – Dish Network, for example, says it loses money on providing the local channels, and is happy to grant such a request – and others may do so also, for the same reason. They only have to pay stations compensation for the viewers who are getting their station's signal from them, you see!

But then how would you see your local channels? Answer: Install an antenna!

At this point, if you have a decent antenna, when you "rescan for channels" you can potentially pick up as many as SIXTY local digital TV channels, bright and clear, right here in Southeast Portland. And you won't have to pay a cent to receive any of them.


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