Clash of the titans — CBS and AT&T spar while 6.5 million viewers lose out

Joe Supan
JS
Joe Supan
Jul 26, 2019

Last Saturday, there was a CBS blackout — the broadcast network vanished from 6.5 million TVs overnight.

Subscribers to DIRECTVDIRECTV NOW and AT&T U-Verse lost CBS and its affiliates in 17 cities across the country. AT&T and CBS had been negotiating a new deal but failed to reach one before their contract expired at 2 a.m. ET.

This CBS blackout is the latest in what now seems to be routine feuds between television networks and distributors.

There’s nothing new about carriage disputes — networks have always wanted more money and distributors want to keep subscription fees down — but the rise of cord cutting and streaming does seem to be accelerating blackouts.

According to the American Television Alliance, a lobbyist group for cable and satellite companies, there have already been 230 blackouts in 2019 involving 29 TV stations, more than any other year on record.

CBS contract dispute causes 6.5 million AT&T subscribers to lose access to the channel.

CBS blames AT&T for a lot of this, calling the company a “repeat blackout offender.” And there is some truth to that. AT&T was involved in a particularly nasty spat with Viacom earlier this year, in which it dubbed Viacom’s channels “no longer popular.”

CBS wants AT&T to pay more for its programming

Right now, DIRECTV reportedly pays around $2/mo. per subscriber for CBS and its affiliates, which was negotiated in 2012 when TV bills cost an average of $86/mo., compared to $107 today.

CBS has called this deal “nowhere close to today’s fair market terms for CBS content — to which AT&T’s competitors have repeatedly agreed.” According to the New York Times, CBS is looking for $3 per month per subscriber in a new deal.

Of course, AT&T doesn’t quite see it that way. In a statement, AT&T called its offer to CBS “an unprecedented rate increase” and put the blame squarely on the other side.

Which cities are affected by the CBS blackout?

The blackout is affecting 17 cities across the U.S.:

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Dallas
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • Minneapolis
  • New York
  • Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh
  • Sacramento
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Tampa

When will the CBS blackout end?

On AT&T’s July 24th earnings call, CEO Randall Stephenson described the gulf in negotiations as “not that wide” and his outlook as “optimistic.”

“When you’re as close as we are, we find it a little interesting that we’re still sitting here dark and not having interaction with CBS,” Stephenson said.

It’s certainly good news that the companies aren’t far apart in negotiations, but it is also concerning that they haven’t spoken since the contract expired on Saturday. Nevertheless, these disputes typically work themselves out fairly quickly.

As frustrating as this blackout is for customers, it’s actually coming at an ideal time for most viewers. Summer is the slowest season for TV, with the biggest shows all premiering in the fall.

Football season is still a month away, too, when CBS will air six AFC games on the first Sunday of the season. CBS also has its most popular shows returning this fall — Young SheldonSurvivor and NCIS are all scheduled for late September premieres. Right now, customers are primarily missing out on staples like 60 MinutesThe Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Big Brother.

How to watch content that’s blacked out on CBS

If you’re missing out on your favorite CBS shows during this blackout, there are some simple workarounds to hold you over.

TV antenna

Ironically, given the billions of dollars in licensing fees being negotiated, CBS is a free-to-air broadcaster. Out of the 119 million homes that receive the channel, about 90 million get it through a pay-TV subscriber like DIRECTV. The other 29 million access CBS through a TV antenna for free.

TV antennas usually cost around $50, can be installed indoors or outdoors and air all of your local HD channels like ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS for free. For more on choosing the right TV antenna for your home, check out our guide here.

Locast

Locast is a non-profit organization that streams local broadcast channels (including CBS) entirely for free. It’s currently available in 13 U.S. cities, but nine of them — Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco — are cities affected by the CBS blackout. Locast has a great app for iPhone and Android, and it’s also compatible with Amazon Fire TV and Roku streaming devices.

CBS News

A number of CBS news programs are also available on its free counterpart, CBS News, which can be watched on free streaming services like Pluto TV and STIRRSunday Morning, for example, airs on CBS News at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET, while Face the Nation airs at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. ET. The channel has news programs playing 24/7, so if that’s what you’re missing during the blackout, it’s pretty simple to get your fix.

CBS All Access

You’re probably not eager to add a subscription for a channel you’re already paying for, but CBS All Access does provide a seven-day free trial. The streaming service allows you to watch CBS live and also provides exclusive on-demand content like The Twilight Zone and The Good Fight.

Shop TV plans