FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has called an emergency meeting of the agency's Media Bureau, following the blackout of 129 Sinclair Broadcasting stations in 79 markets on Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH).
"Today, I have directed the Media Bureau to convene an emergency meeting with Dish and Sinclair to get to the bottom of the dispute and bring back local programming to consumers," Wheeler said. "The parties will have until midnight to file their views."
It's the largest station blackout in pay-TV history, according to the American Television Alliance. It came after a 10-day extension in contract negotiations between Dish and Sinclair that failed to produce a new broadcast retransmission deal.
"We have agreed to rates and all terms to carry Sinclair's local stations," said Warren Schlichting, Dish senior VP of programming, in a statement. "But Sinclair is blacking out 129 local stations in an effort to negotiate a carriage agreement for an unrelated cable channel that it hopes to acquire, but does not own today."
Schlichting added: "Sinclair rejected our extension offer and has chosen to use innocent consumers as pawns to gain leverage for the economic benefit of Sinclair, while causing substantial harm and disruption to the lives of consumers."
Neither Dish nor Sinclair has indicated specifically what cable channel the broadcaster allegedly covets.
Dish is directing customers to its DishPromise.com page, where it's attempting to message its side of the Sinclair impasse. A representative for Sinclair CBS affiliate KBAK-TV in Bakersfield, Calif., meanwhile, instructed FierceCable to call Dish at (855) 318-0572 and complain.
On August 15, Dish announced that it had sent a letter to the FCC, warning the regulatory agency that Sinclair wasn't negotiating an extension "in good faith" and that a large blackout was about to take place. A short-term extension between the broadcaster and operator soon followed, however.
Based on the latest actions by the companies, it appears they were not able to reach a retransmission agreement.
The scale of the blackout is huge, pulling one of the biggest network affiliate operators off the No. 3 pay-TV operator in the U.S., which counts nearly 14 million subscribers.
However, the blackout does occur at a quiet time for affiliate stations, with NFL and college football, as well as the new fall broadcast TV season, still several weeks away.
In a just-filed ex parte letter to the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters warned the agency to be on the lookout for what it called the "bad actor factor" operators, including Dish, which NAB said are drumming up retransmission-related crisis at time when regulators are looking closely at rules governing retrans negotiations.
The cable-backed ATA, meanwhile, chimed in with this statement: "Sinclair's outrageous blackout of Dish customers is a dramatic illustration of why the FCC needs to protect consumers from broadcasters' brass knuckle tactics that harm consumers. Even after Dish and Sinclair agreed on rates, Sinclair has orchestrated the largest television blackout in American history to force Dish into a carriage agreement for an unrelated cable channel that Sinclair hopes to acquire, but does not even own today. This outrageous blackout is the exclamation point on ATVA's call for lawmakers and the FCC to take action to protect consumers by reforming our outdated and broken video laws."
Dish averts mega-blackout, continues retransmission negotiations with Sinclair
Dish Network, DirecTV take retransmission fight public, urge customers to stick around
FCC's Wheeler thrills pay-TV operators, proposes removal of exclusivity rules from retrans negotiations
NAB accuses 'bad actor' pay-TV operators of ginning up retrans disputes, targets Dish, Mediacom, DirecTV
Updated: This story was updated twice on 8/26/2015 to include statements from Dish Network and the American Television Alliance, as well as address the FCC's calling of an emergency meeting.