2019 sees record number of TV blackouts

Data: Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, and The American Television Alliance; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

With five months left in the year, 2019 has already set the record for the highest number of television blackouts in history, according to new data from the American Television Alliance (ATVA).

Why it matters: The programming blackouts are happening as a result of an increase in disputes between TV networks and their distributors — mainly cable and satellite companies — over how much networks should charge distributors for the right to air their content.

Driving the news: CBS said Saturday that AT&T dropped CBS-owned television networks from the channel lineups of millions of AT&T customers, including DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and AT&T U-verse TV customers, in markets all over the country.

  • CBS says that it has made every effort to avoid the blackout, but it that won't agree to terms that it says undervalues its programming.
  • Axios reported last month that AT&T was planning to lodge a formal complaint with regulators against television station owners that, the company says, are refusing to negotiate terms for channels to be carried by its subsidiary DirecTV, resulting in blackouts for viewers.

The big picture: These disputes, driven by a shrinking traditional TV market, are leading to more programming blackouts for consumers, and are forcing some smaller, niche cable channels out of business altogether.

  • Some disputes last for months. Others never get resolved.
  • HBO and Cinemax, for example, haven't been available to Dish or Dish-owned Sling TV customers since late last year.
  • Dish and Disney nearly faced a big blackout this weekend, but the two parties were able to come to a last-minute agreement, preventing several Disney-owned networks, like FX and National Geographic, from going dark.
  • AT&T almost blacked out Viacom channels earlier this year, before the two companies settled their dispute.

What's next: Expect more blackouts as major programmers weigh whether to renew distribution deals.

  • Local broadcaster Nexstar stations have been dark on AT&T properties since July 4, when the two companies announced they were unable to reach an agreement.
  • Last week, 17 local broadcast stations in 12 markets owned by Meredith went dark for Dish customers.

Be smart: Regulators rarely intervene in these fights, even when they're asked to, because they believe such conflicts are best left to the market to handle.

The bottom line: Distribution fights that limit viewer access are becoming much more frequent as the traditional television industry becomes upended by technology.