DirecTV quietly tests transmitting national NBC feed to offset loss of TEGNA affiliates

Some DirecTV customers were able to watch a national programming feed of NBC in areas where the local affiliate has been unavailable for weeks due to a prolonged dispute with TEGNA, StreamTV Insider can confirm.

The test appears to be a first step toward replacing local broadcast affiliates with national network feeds in order to offset the loss of programming during programming disputes, like the one DirecTV currently faces with TEGNA.

Since November, more than five dozen TEGNA-owned ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates have been unavailable on DirecTV via satellite, DirecTV via Internet, DirecTV Stream and U-Verse after a programming contract between DirecTV and TEGNA expired with no new deal in place.

Under federal law, broadcasters like TEGNA have the right to demand fees from cable and satellite companies in exchange for the rights to redistribute their channels. Those fees are typically passed on to subscribers through their bills, which have increased in recent years as broadcasters demand more cash from pay TV providers for access to their channels.

Satellite broadcasters have been particularly aggressive in resisting demands for more cash, choosing instead to drop channels they feel are unjustifiably overpriced. To offset the loss of those channels, pay TV companies have started educating customers that they can receive many of their missing channels by installing an antenna, or by subscribing to a streaming service like Peacock (for NBC channels) or Paramount+ (for CBS channels).

In an interview with StreamTV Insider last month, DirecTV Chief Content Officer Rob Thun said the company was considering another approach: Replacing missing broadcast stations with national network feeds. As Thun puts it, broadcasters were an easily-dispensable part of the overall value chain that exists between a television network and a viewer, and with DirecTV's own data showing most people watch network programming on TEGNA-owned stations, Thun surmised that local broadcasters were the most-dispensable part of the equation.

"We don't need the stations to deliver the network content — we can go get it from the network," Thun affirmed. "So, why don't we work on that construct? And, by the way, we've had those conversations with the networks."

Those conversations have apparently progressed since then: Late last month, DirecTV started transmitting national network feeds of NBC programming in a handful of areas where TEGNA owns the local affiliate. On social media, customers in Seattle and a number of other cities reported being able to access national NBC feeds just a few channel spots down from where their local TEGNA-owned NBC affiliate was offered before November.

The transmission was not promoted by DirecTV as an alternate way to watch NBC shows or sports. On Monday, a company spokesperson confirmed to StreamTV Insider that DirecTV was "testing some capabilities as we explore alternative delivery options to help offset the rising costs of retransmission consent." The tests involved DirecTV’s satellite and streaming TV products, the spokesperson said, and have since concluded.

It was not clear if national feeds from other networks were included in the test broadcasts, nor was it known if TEGNA was aware of the transmissions. In a statement, a TEGNA spokesperson accused DirecTV of “stirring up speculative issues,” and suggested the satellite company should spend more effort on negotiating a new carriage deal that would allow it to restore the missing local channels.

“DirecTV is playing games at customers’ expense,” the TEGNA spokesperson said by e-mail. “DirecTV should be focusing its efforts on negotiating to reach a fair deal, like we’ve negotiated with numerous other providers in just the last month without disruption. We continue to hold out hope that eventually DirecTV will prioritize its paying subscribers. In the meantime, our viewers should switch to a TV provider they can count on, including cable companies and live-streaming services, all of which carry our stations.”

Current federal regulations give the owners of local broadcast affiliates exclusive rights to redistribute broadcast network programming within a certain area. With few exceptions, DirecTV and its main satellite rival, Dish Network, are not allowed to offer subscribers access to another city's broadcast network affiliate to offset the loss of an in-market network affiliate during a carriage dispute.

Four years ago, DirecTV sidestepped this limitation by offering subscribers native access to Locast, a not-for-profit service that distributed streaming versions of local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations in dozens of cities. As part of the deal with Locast, DirecTV's then-parent company AT&T made a sizable financial investment in the service. (AT&T spun off DirecTV into a separate business in 2021, one that is still majority-owned by the telecom.)

The partnership between DirecTV and Locast was leveraged during a carriage dispute with TEGNA in late 2020. At the time, AT&T told DirecTV and U-Verse subscribers to use Locast to access their missing channels. One year later, Locast shut down after an unfavorable ruling in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by the four major broadcast networks.

Article updated to correct Rob Thun's title as chief content officer, a previous version stated chief programming officer.